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Restaurants and customer food allergies – does it have to be war?

How serious do restaurants take your food allergies? Elizabeth Mamacos weighs in on this contentious issue.

by: Elizabeth Mamacos | 10 May 2018
green salad with nuts and cheese

(image: iStock)

To a chef, a recipe and its ingredients are crucial to creating a balanced tasty meal and to be asked to leave one out or swap for another can be frustrating. But to someone with a severe food allergy, eating the wrong thing can mean a trip to hospital, or worse. 

According to the Allergy Foundation of South Africa (AFSA) there are no laws in South Africa mandating allergen awareness training or allergen management systems in food establishments, and many are just not allergen aware. So, to those with food allergies, eating out can be like playing a game of Russian roulette. 

ALSO READ: Why your so-called 'allergy' is driving chefs nuts

Unsurprising then that a recent survey of allergy sufferers, by AFSA, revealed that close to 50% eat out twice a month, and nearly 40% eat out weekly, but over 60% of respondents revealed that they avoid trying new restaurants, and half of those surveyed shared that they will only eat at the same trusted restaurant.  
Almost 90% believe that there is inadequate food allergy training in restaurants and nearly half have had the wrong meal served to them.

This is because so many have had negative experiences. The diners surveyed shared that very often restaurant staff are not educated in food allergies and treat diners badly when they question the ingredients or ask for changes to meals. 

One respondent shared that a waiter “bluntly advised that there was no way the chef would be prepared to accommodate my intolerances”, while another told of the time a waitress “said nothing was safe and we should just not eat there at all.” 

One diner told me about a chef who wouldn’t cater to her allergies “because it was too much hassle to leave certain elements out of the dish” and “the chef basically told us to leave if we were unhappy.”

Another described a restaurant where “nobody knew what gluten was, not even the manager. We had to get up and leave without ordering anything.” 

But the majority of respondents said the risk of contamination was too high, it was too dangerous and they are afraid of getting sick or having an allergic reaction. 

What makes for a good dining experience?

Respondents across South Africa agreed that they will trust an eatery more when there is a detailed allergen menu, all allergens are listed, the staff appear to be informed and there is a knowledgeable chef. Even better if there is a website where all the ingredients can be found beforehand. 

Or, as one respondent put it “One where they don’t roll their eyes at me for asking about allergens and where the chef actually knows what’s in the food allergen-wise.” 

Another diner said she was more likely to trust a restaurant when she felt “normal, and didn’t feel like I was an inconvenience or difficult customer.” 

So where is it safe to eat out? 

The Allergy Foundation stresses that it is your responsibility to let the food provider know that you are allergic to certain types of food, and, once you have informed them, it is your choice to decide whether or not to take the first bite. Often the ingredients come from outside sources and are beyond the control of the eatery. Unless there is an Allergen Management System in place, there is no proof that your meal has not been contaminated with your particular allergen.

I asked allergy sufferers where they find it safest to eat out: 

Deborah told me about Wang Thai at Lagoon Beach Hotel in Milnerton, Cape Town. “They have a separate allergen menu - just ask for it - it’s amazing and the food is delicious!” she said. 

Chollette, from Wang Thai, explained to me that they do support those with specials dietary needs. “We are very accommodating of our allergen customers. The manager and waiters on duty usually assist, as our chefs are Thai. We also have an allergen book in store specifying which items are, and are not, in each dish.”  

Andrea recommends Tasha’s, Kauai and Col’Cacchio around the country, as well as Imhoff Farm’s Blue Water Café in Kommetjie, Cape Town. 

Mada shared that she finds that in general fine dining restaurants are very accommodating. “They tend to cook everything from scratch anyway, and unlikely to use pre-mixed spices or thickeners for example. But always give them notice if you can - call through your needs a day in advance. I have been fine asking the chef to prep anything that doesn't contain my no-go foods.” 

Michelle recommends Urban Angels, a paleo-based eatery in Randburg, Johannesburg. “If the owner is there, he cooks my food according to diet requirements” she said. 

Jackson's Real Food Market in Johannesburg is also a popular spot for those with food allergies. Gary Jackson says that they focus on preparing fresh healthy meals with a low chemical content, and minimal carbs and sugar.

Shannon shared that she had good luck “pretty much everywhere I went while traveling from Johannesburg to Cape Town, via Durban and Port Elizabeth. It wasn’t difficult getting simple clean meals, especially seafood, but I had the best experience at Flava in Port Elizabeth.” She told me the chef-owner was excited to assist with her dietary restrictions. “He worked with me to make a fabulous meal. Seriously the best meal I have had outside of my home in two years!” 

Do you have a serious food allergy? Tell us about your experiences eating out, below in the comments section!

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