3 Ways Restaurant Staff and Customers Can Communicate to Prevent Food Allergic Reactions

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Public health researchers have called food allergies “”a growing public health epidemic in Canada”Affecting around one in 13 Canadians and one in five Canadian households. Dining out can be risky and stressful for people with allergies, in part because many restaurant workers lack of training, skills and confidence to manage food allergies safely and efficiently.

These are challenges that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic and will surely persist afterward. In recent years, media across Canada reported several cases of people suffering from the extreme, sometimes fatal allergic reactions to restaurant food. Such accidents are most often due to miscommunication.

As researchers in the field of industrial and organizational psychology, we analyzed how and why information about food allergies is communicated and poorly communicated in restaurants. We approached allergy communication the same way we might approach communication between a flight crew or a surgical team: by isolating the critical behaviors in the communication process.

Based on this research, we offer some guidelines for reducing the risk of allergic reactions in restaurants and improving the customer experience.

Allergic communication

Poor communication between waiters and kitchen staff can lead to allergenic incidents.
(Shutterstock)

Allergy information can be communicated in both written and verbal form. Written communication takes place on a restaurant’s website, posters in dining rooms, menus and ingredient lists. This also happens among staff, such as on purchase orders and point of sale (POS) machines.

Yet most food orders involve verbal conversations between customers and waiters. During these conversations, customers and waiters get a feel for each other and together decide how best to handle the customer’s food order.

We have collected examples, or critical incidents, restaurant staff processing a food order for an allergic customer. We received 107 successful incidents and 61 failed incidents from various restaurants. Failed incidents involved things like an allergic reaction, staff having to redo a meal and / or an upset customer.

For each incident, staff indicated who was involved, what went well, what went wrong and how. Based on these, we mapped the allergy communication process from customer to server to kitchen staff and back again, and identified where errors commonly occur, as shown in this diagram.

Diagram tracing the lines of communication between restaurant staff
The process of communicating allergy from customer to waiter to kitchen staff and back, showing where mistakes commonly occur.
Reprinted from International Journal of Hospitality Management, DOI: 10.1016 / j.ijhm.2021.102959, with permission from Elsevier., Author provided

In addition to these incidents, we also asked 138 people with moderate to severe food allergies to describe their own dining experiences.

As you can see, communication in restaurants works like a phone game, where messages get from customers to waiters to kitchen staff. Like on the phone, mistakes can happen at any time, and with enough time mistakes are inevitable. Unlike the telephone, however, errors can be anticipated, avoided or corrected.

Recommendation # 1: Learn About Allergies

Most communication problems arise when clients forget or are too shy to disclose their allergy. We suggest servers ask customers to disclose their allergies when they present themselves: “Hello, my name is Sam and I will be your server. First of all, does anyone at the table have any food allergies? “

To be clear, we are not suggesting that disclosure of allergies is the responsibility of the server. Quite the contrary: most of the people questioned (staff and customers alike) agree that the disclosure of allergies is above all the responsibility of the customer.

We suggest that waiters ask customers about allergies simply because it is the most effective approach. A typical waiter processes many more food orders than a typical customer. Thus, not only may staff be better able to develop the habit of initiating conversations about food allergies, but trained waiters have the opportunity to lead the conversation.

In the same interaction, some customers mention their allergy but omit important information, such as the severity of the allergy. According to staff we interviewed, customers shouldn’t just report their allergy; they should also describe the severity of the allergy.

Recommendation # 2: Double-check

Staff and customers can incorporate double checks to detect and reverse communication problems before they lead to disaster. Double checking consists of repeating the information to the speaker and asking for confirmation. For example, when a customer discloses an allergy, the server may repeat the allergy and accommodation to the customer and ask the customer to confirm that this information is correct. In the diagram above, we have highlighted four points where double checking is most useful.

Of course, it may not be realistic to include double checks at all of these points. However, each additional double check could improve your chances of catching an error and saving a life.

Recommendation n ° 3: Involve fewer staff

Again, the allergy communication process works much like a phone game, and the phone is easier with fewer people playing. Likewise, it can be helpful to reduce the number of people who have to deliver a message. Restaurants that do this well often appoint a staff member, manager or chef to directly oversee orders from customers with allergies.

Nobody likes fakes

Allergy sufferers and staff have raised the issue of allergy “spoofers” – people who claim to have a food allergy which is really just a preference. These forgers aren’t just annoying. They muddy the waters of allergy communication, making it harder for customers and staff to trust each other. This is all the more reason why customers need to be clear about the severity of their allergy and for staff to treat all allergies seriously, even when in doubt.

Many restaurants already follow some or all of these recommendations, but many do not. Every restaurant, staff, and customer is different, so these recommendations are a suggested starting point. We’ve kept our recommendations simple so they’re easy to adopt or adapt.

Good habits can reduce allergic reactions, improve the customer experience, and build staff confidence in managing allergies. In addition, people with allergies may be loyal clients to restaurants that they consider safe.

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