Public health researchers have called food allergies “a growing public health epidemic in Canada,” affecting one in 13 Canadians and one in five Canadian families. Eating out can be risky and stressful for people with allergies, as many restaurant employees lack the training, skills, and confidence to safely and effectively manage food allergies.
These are challenges that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic and will certainly remain so. In recent years, news outlets across Canada have reported numerous cases of people suffering from extreme, sometimes fatal, allergies to restaurant food. Such accidents are often caused by miscommunication.
As researchers in the field of industrial-organizational psychology, we analyzed how and why information about food allergies is sent, and miscommunicated, in restaurants. We approached allergy communication the same way we might approach communication between flight crew or surgical team: by separating make-or-break behavior into the communication process.
Based on this research, we provide some guidelines for reducing the risk of allergic reactions in restaurants and improving the customer experience.
Allergy information can be communicated in written and oral forms. Written communication occurs on a restaurant’s website, posters in dining rooms, menus and ingredients lists. It also happens between employees, such as order forms and point-of-sale (POS) machines.
Nevertheless, most food orders involve verbal interactions between customers and servers. In these conversations, customers and servers get to know each other and decide together how best to handle a customer’s food order.
We collected examples of, or serious incidents, of restaurant employees ordering food for a customer with allergies. We found 107 successful events and 61 unsuccessful events from a variety of restaurants. Failed incidents included things like allergic reactions, employees remaking food, and/or upset customers.
For each incident, employees reported who was involved, what went right, what went wrong, and how. Based on these, we mapped the process of allergy communication from customer to server to kitchen staff and back, and pinpointed where mistakes commonly occur, as shown in this diagram.
In addition to these incidents, we also asked 138 people with moderate to severe food allergies to describe their own encounters eating out at restaurants.
As you can see, communication in restaurants works like a game of telephone, where messages travel from customers to servers to kitchen workers. As with the telephone, mistakes can happen at any stage, and given enough time, mistakes are bound to happen. Unlike the telephone, however, mistakes can be predicted, avoided, or corrected.
Recommendation #1: Ask About Allergies
Most miscommunications happen when customers forget or shy away from disclosing their allergies. We recommend that servers ask customers to disclose their allergies when introducing themselves: “Hello, my name is Sam and I will be your server. First, is anyone at the table allergic to the food?”
To be clear, we are not suggesting that allergy disclosure is the server’s responsibility. Quite the opposite: Most of the people we asked (staff and customers alike) agreed that disclosing allergens is primarily the responsibility of the customer.
We recommend that servers ask customers about allergies simply because this is the most efficient method. A typical server orders far more food than a typical customer. Therefore, employees may not only be more apt to develop the habit of starting conversations about food allergies, trained servers have the opportunity to lead the conversation.
In the same conversation, some customers mention their allergies, but leave out important information, such as how severe the allergy is. According to the staff we surveyed, customers shouldn’t just state their allergies; They should also describe the severity of the allergy.
Recommendation #2: Double-check
Employees and customers can integrate double-checks to catch and reverse miscommunication before it leads to disaster. Double-checking involves repeating the information back to the speaker and asking for confirmation. For example, when a customer discloses an allergy, the server may repeat the allergy and accommodations back to the customer, and ask the customer to confirm that this information is correct. In the picture above, we have highlighted four points where double checking is most helpful.
Of course, it may not be realistic to include a double-check on all of these points. Still, each additional double-check can improve your chances of catching an error and saving a life.
Recommendation #3: Involve fewer employees
Again, the allergy communication process works like a game of telephone, and telephone is easier with fewer people playing. Likewise, it can be helpful to reduce the number of people who have to send a message. Restaurants that do this well often designate a staff member, manager or chef to directly supervise the orders of customers with allergies.
no one likes fakers
Allergy customers and employees both raise the problem of allergy “fake” — people who claim to have a food allergy that’s really just a preference. These fakes aren’t just annoying. They muddy the waters of allergy communication, making it more difficult for customers and employees to trust each other. This is another reason why customers should be clear about the severity of their allergies, and that staff should treat all allergies seriously, even when they suspect it.
Many restaurants already follow some or all of these recommendations, but many do not. Every restaurant, every staff member and every customer is different, so consider these recommendations as a suggested starting point. We kept our recommendations simple so they’re easy to adopt or customize.
Good habits can reduce allergic reactions, improve the customer experience and strengthen employees’ confidence in managing allergies. In addition, people with allergies may be loyal customers of restaurants they consider safe.