Elevating Restaurant Food Allergy Protocols

Max McGlinchey, a 19-year-old peanut-allergic college student, died over the summer after eating at a Chinese restaurant in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  As always, Max was careful to ask about ingredients in the meal he was ordering – Beef Lo Mein and an egg roll – to ensure the foods were peanut-free.  There was apparently a mistake in the kitchen, as someone either cooked his food in peanut oil or there was accidental cross-contact with peanuts, and Max died from a severe allergic reaction.

Celia Marsh died of anaphylaxis after eating at U.K. sandwich chain Pret a Manger.  The 42-year-old mother suffered a severe allergic reaction after eating a sandwich that included yogurt that was supposed to be dairy-free, but actually contained traces of milk protein. Several months earlier, a 15-year-old girl, Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, visited a different Pret a Manger location, where she ate a mislabeled baguette.  The bread she consumed contained sesame but wasn’t labeled as such.  Natasha, who was sesame-allergic, had a severe allergic reaction and died.

Making mistakes when preparing food-allergic guests’ food can (literally) kill them.  It’s imperative that every employee in every restaurant take food allergies seriously, and work tirelessly to prevent these errors. All staff members should be aware of your restaurant’s food allergy protocols, and be properly trained around accommodating guests with special dietary restrictions. Emphasize to your staff that if a food-allergic guest ingests even a trace amount of their food allergen, it can trigger a reaction – and in severe cases, even death.

Food allergies are becoming increasingly prevalent in our society. According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), it's estimated that, today, an estimated 15 million Americans have food allergies. The "Big 8" foods – responsible for 90 percent of all allergic responses – are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. Sesame has become such a prevalent allergen that we may soon be discussing the ”Big 9,” as manufacturers may soon label for the presence of this ingredient, as well. While these allergens are most common, people can also have severe allergic reactions to a wide variety of other foods and spices.

It’s easy to understand how a mistake could happen when you’re serving hundreds of guests on any given evening.  But it’s also critical to prevent mistakes, using proper food allergy protocols all the time, with every food-allergic guest.

While, obviously, the first priority is to keep guests safe, it’s also important to recognize that mistakes around food allergies can devastate a business.  A mistake can be extremely costly (legal fees, decreased business) and can ruin a restaurant’s reputation (just look at the negative press Pret a Manager has been getting around their multiple food allergy errors).

Becoming allergy-friendly is good for restaurants’ bottom line.  Consumers with food allergies are extremely loyal to restaurants that can accommodate them.  The food allergy community is vocal and close-knit, sharing information about extraordinary experiences with accommodating restaurants so others can visit (and enjoy) these establishments.  The converse is also true: if restaurants are not accommodating or knowledgeable about food allergies, food-allergic guests share these negative experiences so others can avoid them. Here are some tips to make your restaurant more allergy-friendly.

 Communicate with Guests and Staff

Communication is critical – from the moment the guest walks into the door until they receive their meal. Always ask if there are any food allergies in each party and, if so, communicate that information to the manager and chef. The kitchen staff should be in constant communication with each other through the entire process of cooking, plating and serving the allergy-friendly meal.

 Avoid Cross-Contact

Cross-contact occurs when proteins from foods containing an allergen are transferred to foods not containing that allergen, such as chopping peanuts on a board and then chopping salad greens on that same board.  A peanut-allergic guest could have a reaction from eating the greens that came into contact with the peanuts during prep. The difference between cross-contact and cross-contamination is that anyone can become ill from cross-contamination if they eat foods that have touched raw meats or poultry. Cross-contact is dangerous only for food-allergic guests, who may inadvertently ingest their allergens if proper care wasn't taken during food prep.

Allergy-Friendly Workspace

Create a separate allergy-friendly workspace in your kitchen. Use this space to prepare allergen-free/gluten-free meals.

Know Your Ingredients

Know every ingredient used in every component of every meal on the menu. Double-check ingredients when serving a food-allergic guest. 

Color Code

Color-code food allergy equipment and tools.  This reduces the risk of cross-contact. Purple is the universal color for allergen-free kitchen utensils. Keep these tools clean, covered and stored away from flours, nuts and other common allergens.  Also, serve allergen-free/gluten-free meals on different-shaped or different-colored plates so they can be easily identified by servers and guests.

Have Information On Hand

 Be certain that you’re providing accurate information.  When food allergic guests have questions, these inquiries should be directed to the person in charge or the chef so the question can be answered accurately. Servers should never guess about ingredients in a dish or how a meal is prepared. 

Use Separate Equipment

Use separate equipment for food-allergic guests.  For instance, don't use the same fryer (or oil) for French fries that you use for breaded products, fish or foods containing nuts.

Understand Allergies

Be aware of multiple and complex allergies. Your team may have mastered cooking and serving a dairy-free or gluten-free meal, but they should also be able to expertly handle multiple and unusual allergies.

Staff Education

 Educate your entire staff about allergen "aliases." For instance, whey and casein are dairy products, and semolina contains gluten.


Be willing to modify dishes for food-allergic guests, using different sauces, sides or other components to accommodate their special dietary restrictions.


Train your team on food allergy protocols. There are numerous on-line classes, webinars, videos, and live classes that can assist you with this endeavor.  Every employee should be trained on food allergy protocols and reminded to take food allergies seriously.  Offer “refresher training” regularly to keep this information top-of-mind.

It’s vital that everyone on your team knows how to manage food allergies and intolerances. Emphasize the importance of accommodating food-allergic diners, even during a busy dinner rush.  Food-allergic consumers are seeking out establishments where they can dine worry free, many of them driving an hour or more to eat safely. These allergy-friendly establishments will earn brand loyalty, and therefore, increase profitability.