Intolerance Tolerance: Could Charlottesville do more for diners with dietary restrictions?

cheesefritters

Paleo. Lactose-intolerance. Gluten-free.

Restaurants have heard them all.

Every chef has a favorite story about guests’ purported dietary restrictions. For Duner’s chef Laura Fonner, it was a guest claiming to have a nut allergy who asked if there were peanuts in the peanut pie. “If the pastry chef uses creamy peanut butter,” the guest said, “then there would be no peanut chunks and I should be okay.” At Oakhart Social, chef-owner Tristan Wraight’s favorite recent example was a guest with an allergy to “extra black pepper.”

But, feigned dietary restrictions are not just a nuisance for restaurants. They can also harm guests with real ones.

Medical conditions and personal preferences are not one and the same. While most good restaurants will try to accommodate both, the sensitivity of some medical conditions can require a much higher degree of care, where chefs literally hold the lives of their guests in their hands. “We’re all in the position of potentially killing people,” says Wraight. Zocalo chef-owner Ivan Rekosh shares Wraight’s sense of responsibility: “As the provider of nourishment, ultimately it falls on me not to get you sick.”

But, the recent rise in claimed dietary restrictions has made that job more difficult, as chefs have grown wary of guest’s allergy claims. Take gluten. A no-no in many fad diets, gluten is the most commonly feigned allergen at Oakhart Social, Wraight says. In many cases, he says, once a server explains to a guest what dishes are off-limits, the allergy seems to evaporate.

At Duner’s, Fonner says, roughly five guests per night report dietary restrictions, and it has become difficult to distinguish mere personal preference from life-and-death medical conditions. One Valentine’s Day when Duner’s offered a pre-set three course menu, a guest claimed to be a strict vegan and asked the restaurant to create a separate vegan meal. Then she ordered chicken. “It is people like this,” Fonner says, “that make chefs not trust the public and their special orders.”

Diners Left Out

The distrust goes both ways, says one mother of a teenage son who has celiac disease and severe food allergies. (Let’s call her Jen.) Having observed widespread unawareness of what her son’s conditions require, she and her son have almost stopped dining out altogether in Charlottesville, opting to stay home over risking yet another trip to the hospital. Celiac disease, for example, makes Jen’s son highly sensitive to gluten, even in trace amounts. This means that his food cannot be cooked on the same grill or in the same pan as food containing gluten, or touched by hands or utensils that may have gluten traces. Almost invariably, Jen says, even when a restaurant claims to serve options that are “gluten-free,” a little polite questioning reveals that the restaurant lacks the precautions necessary to prevent gluten cross-contamination.

One response to this might be “tough luck.” Parents of children with severe allergies are often met with eye-rolling, dismissive smirks, and even the odd suspicion that they are making a bigger deal than necessary of the allergies. For those who have never had a loved one with severe dietary restrictions, it can be difficult to appreciate what it is like to go through life with constant fear that one’s child could die at any moment from accidental cross-contamination. One mother said she would gladly give all of her limbs just to trade places with her children and spare them the agony of their allergies.

Jen herself acknowledges that there are worse fates than not being able to dine out. These are the cards she and her son were dealt, she says, and it is their responsibility to deal with them. But, because social outings so often revolve around food, the scarcity of Charlottesville restaurants that can accommodate severe allergies has meant her son and others like him are almost always left out. “I cannot adequately express how painful it is to witness the exclusion and social isolation he experiences,” says Jen. Another mother of children with severe allergies says her children also never visit Charlottesville restaurants, and miss out greatly because of it. “A lot of joy in life is centered around getting together to eat,” she says. “My love for food is so great, and I wish I could give the gift of dining out to my family.”

The problem is not that restaurants do not want to help. “I will bend over backwards to accommodate any allergy at all,” says Fonner. Rather, it is a matter first of awareness and second of implementing the comprehensive, front-to-back approach that addressing severe allergies requires.

In larger markets, restaurants have started to implement such programs. In Austin, TX, at James Beard award finalist Bryce Gilmore’s restaurant Odd Duck, Gilmore’s staff prints seven different menus every day for various dietary restrictions. In New York, Danny Meyer’s barbecue restaurant Blue Smoke has an allergy guide to assure diners what they can eat safely. And, at the Massachusetts restaurant Blue Ginger, celebrity Chef Ming Tsai has a robust process to avoid harming guests who have allergies, including an “Allergy Bible” listing every ingredient in every dish, as well as the major allergens they contain.

Tsai has a son with severe allergies, and that type of personal experience is often what improves understanding. Burtons Grill owner Kevin Harron, for example, has celiac disease, and his chain of restaurants has become the gold standard for service of guests with severe dietary restrictions. As a member of the hospitality business, Harron considers it his obligation.

Not surprisingly, Charlottesville’s Burtons outpost has become a common hang-out for local diners with severe allergies. Even for a burger on a gluten-free bun, Jen says, it is priceless to be able to enjoy something as taken-for-granted as a simple night dining out, without the fear of a hospital visit looming. “Burtons was EXCELLENT!,” wrote one reviewer whose son has severe allergies. “It is so nice to be understood and cared for!”

That said, the Burtons chain has advantages that some smaller independent restaurants lack, like a stable menu and the kitchen space to create entire separate environments for allergen-free cooking. In a restaurant world of ever-changing menus, rotating staff, and cramped, fast-paced restaurant kitchens, not every restaurant can pull off a program as comprehensive as Burtons.

Short of such measures, Rekosh says, what is vital is communication, both from restaurants to guests and guests to restaurants. “I will accommodate you left and right and up and down,” says Rekosh, particularly with advance notice. Wraight agrees. “It is astonishing how often a guest fails to inform us of an allergy,” he says. Rekosh recalls a boy with a nut allergy who had a severe reaction to Zocalo’s famous cheese fritters, which contain pecans. Even though Zocalo’s menu did not list pecans as an ingredient, the boy’s mother was deeply apologetic for failing to mention her son’s allergy. Ever since, Zocalo’s menu has listed pecans as an ingredient in the fritters.

Jen recognizes that ultimately the responsibility falls on her and her son. She calls restaurants ahead. She sheepishly deposes servers. But, because so few restaurants have adopted reliable processes, her son and others with severe dietary restrictions just avoid restaurants altogether. “I’m not looking for a guarantee,” Jen says. “Just that they get it.”

One restaurant that may “get it” is Prime 109. Co-owner Loren Mendosa, who once dated someone with celiac disease, says that the restaurant has regular guests with celiac disease and severe allergies, and that his kitchen and staff take measures for them to eat safely, including separate fryers, separate pans, separate utensils, and gluten-free buns. “We are in the customer service business, and our goal is to make people happy,” says Mendosa. “The more people we can make happy, whatever dietary restrictions they may have, the better.” But, not every restaurant is capable of making every guest happy. Mendosa’s other restaurant, for example, the tiny pizzeria Lampo, he would not recommend to someone with severe gluten sensitivity. “There’s flour everywhere,” says Mendosa.

By Law or Compassion

So, what can be done?

While the law does afford some protections to restaurant guests with severe dietary restrictions, as Bruce Hornsby would say, it only goes so far. According to guidance from the Department of Justice, the Americans with Disabilities Act may require restaurants to take steps to accommodate such guests, but only steps that are “reasonable” and that would not result in a “fundamental alteration” to restaurant operations. This may include, for example, ingredient substitutions if available to other guests, but does not require a restaurant “to alter its menu or provide different foods to meet particular dietary needs”.

Even if the law does not require such accommodations, though, Jen wonders what about compassion? The Charlottesville food community, after all, is known for its heart and generosity. “We talk a lot about community and unity here in Charlottesville,” Jen says. “If some chefs could extend that ethic to those of us excluded from nearly every social gathering because there are no safe options, well, it would be incredible.”

“We talk a lot about community and unity here in Charlottesville,” Jen says. “If some chefs could extend that ethic to those of us excluded from nearly every social gathering because there are no safe options, well, it would be incredible.”

Researchers estimate that food allergies now affect 10% of Americans, a number that keeps climbing. Proportionately, that would amount to more than 20,000 in the Charlottesville area. For them to dine out, especially the severely allergic, there may be no easy solution. But, as is often true when there are various perspectives, a big first step would be greater understanding. Restaurants understanding medical conditions and the care they require. Those with dietary restrictions understanding the challenges restaurants face, and the benefit of advance communication. And, the rest of us understanding how feigned dietary restrictions can make things that much more difficult. With that start, perhaps Charlottesville can become the model of compassion Jen imagines.


 

Addendum: Resources

A list of resources for restaurants seeking to improve care of guests with severe dietary restrictions: