Adrienne Walkowiak ~ Legal Sea Foods, a popular restaurant chain, gets high praise when it comes to serving food-allergic guests. For years, their restaurants have been doing all the right things – training their staff, implementing specific allergy protocols and offering a gluten-free menu. According to Corporate Chef Jeff Tenner, accommodating food allergies has become an integral part of their corporate culture. (This is not mere talk – Legal Sea Foods has a chainwide AllergyEats allergy-friendliness rating of 4.6 out of 5!)
The Legal Sea Foods team could be considered progressive, as they’ve been providing food allergy options, including a gluten-free menu, for years – long before many other restaurants implemented these procedures and special menus. They have an ongoing commitment to careful food allergy protocols at every level and at every one of their 30 locations.
The food allergy process starts at the table with the service staff, who are “aware and inquisitive,” engaging guests in dialogue when taking their order. If guests have a special request or request a substitution, the server asks if the guest has food preferences or a food allergy.
In the case of a food allergy (or allergies), the order gets flagged. There’s an “allergy key” in the restaurants’ electronic system, which prints allergy information in bold red letters at the top of the diner’s ticket.
As part of their food allergy protocol, the food allergic diner’s plate is lined with an additional plate beneath it, as a physical reminder that this meal is being prepared for a food allergic guest.
In the kitchen, the chefs and staff use clean surfaces, new cutting boards, sanitized knives and even new pairs of gloves when preparing the special meal, to prevent cross-contamination. They use clean, sanitized pans for every meal prepared for a food allergic guest, and even have separate fryers for people with nut allergies and gluten intolerances.
“We’ve had a gluten-free menu for five years, and we’ve created a following because of that. We make sure that people who are on a gluten-free diet can still enjoy interesting foods, such as gluten-free rolls and croutons, and we can fry gluten-free food, using chickpea flour or cornmeal,” Tenner continued.
A manager is always alerted to a food allergy at the beginning of the process, and is responsible for bringing the meal to the food allergic guest.
“People’s allergies are all different levels – some people are deathly allergic,” Chef Tenner explained. “We’re not a nut free or shellfish free environment, and we take great care to elevate the dialogue with food allergic guests to effectively communicate with them.”
The restaurants’ staff members – including managers and servers – receive extensive allergy protocol training as part of their orientation when they start with the company. Additionally, staff members are provided with tools, such as detailed ingredient lists for every item on the menu, to help them accommodate food allergic diners.
“Our servers are provided with pocket guides that break down the menu into different sections and highlight allergens. They all have easy access to ingredient guides for things we produce in-house and things we buy from outside vendors, and we encourage our servers to share our ingredient lists with guests,” Tenner explained.
The company only works with vendors that provide detailed ingredient lists, explaining that they can’t sell or serve a product unless they know exactly what’s in it.
The Boston-based company also keeps up with the changing food allergy legislation in Massachusetts, which is the first state in the nation to implement regulations around food allergies and restaurants. One of the first pieces of legislation, which has recently gone into effect, requires disclaimers on menus, asking guests to notify their server of any food allergies. Legal Sea Foods already had a similar disclaimer on their menus before required by law to do so, but recently altered the language slightly per the new Massachusetts guidelines.
The second piece of legislation takes effect in February 2011, calling for increased protocol training around food allergies. The Legal Sea Foods team, which already has strict training protocols in place, are embracing this new online allergy training, which will be enforced by the Massachusetts Department of Health.
When asked about whether restaurants are moving towards a “food allergy trend,” Tenner explained that there’s a wide discrepancy among restaurants. Some are sincerely concerned about the health and safety of their guests and are very willing to accommodate food-allergic diners, while others are less concerned about food allergy issues.
“Some restaurant owners are keenly aware that they’re in business to make money, and if they ostracize a certain segment of the population, that will impact their bottom line,” Tenner said. “Others don’t look at it that way. They think there are enough people without food allergies to keep them in business.”
Tenner has found that people with food allergies in their own families are far more aware and conscientious about the issue. For instance, well-known chef and television personality Ming Tsai’s son has food allergies, which makes Chef Tsai much more sympathetic around this issue in his own restaurants. He’s also a national spokesperson for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), working to further education and research on food allergies.
“Ming is very concerned about food allergies and is a big Legal Sea Foods fan because he knows he can bring his son into the restaurant and we can accommodate his special requirements,” Tenner added. [Paul’s note: I can confirm first-hand that Ming is a fan of “Legal’s”.]
At Legal Sea Foods, food allergy protocols are consistent among their 30 restaurants.
“It’s been part of our culture for so long,” Tenner explained. “Of all the things we do well, this is one of the biggies. It’s become a way of life for us.”
For more information about Legal Sea Foods, including restaurant locations, please visit www.legalseafoods.com.
Article by Adrienne Walkowiak of AllergyEats. AllergyEats is a comprehensive, user-friendly guide to allergy-friendly restaurants across the United States. It is a peer-reviewed directory of restaurants – rated by people with food allergies, for people with food allergies.