06 March 2013

The SMAC down Report!

Food Allergy Gal Undercover
It's been months since I did my "Lunch with Food Allergy Gal Challenge."  For those of you who don't know, In November I asked chefs and restaurant owners to lunch (I would pay full price) at their establishments. 

I was so disappointed when only one executive chef took me up on my offer, and many other top level executives at chain restaurants claimed "They didn't have a problem" or "Were not interested" at this time. It's appalling how many key executives are clueless to this GIANT market, which is untapped. While I can't give you all the results of the Food Allergy Gal Lunch Challenge, I will summarize with these. I contacted over 250 restaurants in the process of doing this and here are some of the results: 

You can rate restaurants by how Allergy Friendly they are by getting the Allergy Eats App for iphone or going to allergyeats.com. I do this just give periodic updates. It's still a very long battle before we reach partnership and understanding. 

Chain Restaurant #1
Results: I spoke with a key executive at BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse. He tells me, "We send all of people through food allergy training when they come on board. We have a gluten free menu and are part of the Gluten Free Restaurant Awareness Program. We are very careful with how we handle food allergens in our stores. Unless the NRA (National Restaurant Association, approves your program, we don't need help." 

I did some research before and after I spoke with Mr. Goldberg. I spoke with  restaurant staff members and even a head chef who formerly worked there. I also spoke to diners who eat or had eaten at BJ's. 

It was a 50/50 split. Half the people who ate there with food allergies or food sensitivities- said, "They did a great job. They are so accommodating with my gluten sensitivity  " The other half said- "I feel like they had never served someone like me in their life and I got very sick. " One said, "If only I had a gluten issues, I would have been fine eating there." 

Of the staff members, 60% of the staff said they remembered taking a little class which included food allergens and knew they had a gluten free menu. All of the staff said when it came to other food allergens, they would feel more confident with extra training. Some even confessed picking off nuts out of salads, knowing of cross contact happening 90% of the time, and the biggest problem they had was communication with the kitchen because of language/translation barriers, especially when it came to FOOD ALLERGENS. Most all of them confessed to not feeling confident when serving a person with food allergies.

Chain Restaurant #2: 
Results: It was a late night out, watching a parade in our neighborhood which is lined with shops of all sizes, mostly restaurants. The restaurants were fairly empty because most people were watching the parade from the street. I found myself starving. I walked into a Rubio's and let the manager know I had food allergies and wondered if I order "XYZ" item if it contained my food allergens. - I later followed up with the corporate Rubio's site. Their standard response was basically- don't eat here with food allergies, but feel free to mail us some information. Then came another email from a marketing person who works directly with the CEO and founder, stating their organization could benefit from Lunch with FoodAllergyGal. The CEO later declined to meet with me, saying they were not interested in working on a project like this at this time. 

Chain Restaurant #3:
Results: The Concept Chef of Claim Jumper agreed to meet with me and we did have lunch. He saw all the challenges I had as a diner, but also recognized how challenging it was for his staff. He flies across the country working with the various restaurants. Often times he is asked about food allergens in his travels. He realizes it affects everyone, regardless of age. He gave me a lot of information about what the company was doing from a nutritional perspective but how that information wasn't always available at the store level. He sees the benefits in having an ingredient guide and possibly developing key menu items specifically for the food allergic.  If I did nothing else in this experiment,  I opened his eyes to see this issues affects more people and more lives than what is commonly thought by chefs and owners. There were promises made about how he wanted our companies to work together, including giving a presentation to the regional executives about our AllerTrain-TM program. Nothing has developed yet. 

Local Restaurant #1: 
Results: I met with Bliss 525 and ate with Owner, Nancy. She eats gluten free, just for health benefits and feels better, but still didn't understand the magnitude of food allergies. While she was very interested in how we could work together, the inevitable issue of finances and timing always comes into play. There was discussions of working together after the holidays but we are now at the end of February and nothing has come from this meeting. 

Local Restaurant #2: 
Results: My business partner and I met with an owner of two local restaurants. The need to develop a food allergy menu seemed to be the biggest issue in his mind. While it seems "easy" to do, in discussions, staff still needs to be educated on how to safely prepare these special dishes. Education was not as important as just "get this done". His main reason was because when a food allergic person walks into one of his restaurants when they are busy, it really slows the process down. (I don't think anyone can argue with that). Once staff becomes confident by becoming educated and policy's and processes are continuously followed, the time to serve a food allergic will be just as simple and quick as serving a diner with no special needs. 

I've been struggling to write this article for the last 30 days, not just because my mother passed away at the young age of 60, but because to me this experiment/promotion, to the market seemed like a failure. No one did anything to change. I know it takes time to reach people. The flip side is I raised awareness. I brought to light a new market.  I might have only made a friend for life as a result of this challenge, but I have certainly tried to make a difference. 

Grocery Store: 
Shopping is no easy task and it's also not an easy task to get grocery stores to realize their part. I met with Safeway a few times. Unfortunately the timing was terrible, as my mom died right in the midst of the meetings. While I have an awesome support team, the messages were not properly communicated. Safeway ended up hiring a nutritionist to their team to explore more of this. They were not interested in innovative labeling (Only what was tried and true) and they had no interest in training or certification for their hot and fresh kitchen staff. Sourcing products is of course a priority for them- but if they can't understand which products are good and which products they currently have that don't sell- then what's going on. Of course everyone seems micro focused on Gluten Free- (Great for celiacs and gluten intolerant  unproductive for those of us with top 10 allergens. 

I love the response from United Airlines, "We know peanuts are a problem, we do our best to ensure safety- but as for other allergens, well we don't care, they aren't as severe, so good luck." Most of the airlines don't have control over the food, it's companies like Gate Gourmet and LGS Sky Chef, ServAir. I've had ZERO response from any of them- the airlines love to give scripted, "Sorry but it's out of our zone" responses. They don't know and they don't have someone in charge of that department either. 

More Real Reports: 
Johnny Rockets: At the store level, in 2 different occasions years apart, they still have no idea that they have an allergen friendly and gluten free menu. This scares me. If the people that work there every day don't know they have this, how can we expect that the consumer is going to be safe while eating there. This is nerve racking. While I appreciate the extra mile Johnny Rockets has taken to publish online, they don't seem to have a great follow up system that ensures the message is carried through or ongoing training on food allergens. 

The Cheesecake Factory: This was the most impressive of all the big chain restaurants. 
1. I asked the hostess if they had an allergen and gluten free menu and she immediately said, "let me get the manager."
2. The manager came out and said, "we don't have a special menu anymore because our recipes are always changing, but if you let me know what your allergens are, I am sure we can accommodate you." 
3. When I asked if they had special policies to handle allergens in the kitchen, he said "Yes" and told me that corporate was working on an online system. 

Native Foods Cafe: VERY well done in Tustin, CA location. I've eaten here several times with friends and clients. This is the best example of fast-causal dining, handling food allergies, in the last few months. I notified the girl at the counter I had food allergies, she immediately looked over at the manager and said, "This is the guy to talk to." Chris  the manager, stepped in, pulled us to another register and immediately pulled out the quick ingredient guide which listed every menu item and all the ingredients of each item. While he knew most of the ingredients by heart, he continued to double check in the book, just to be certain. The only thing he could have done better- was write down my food allergens and put them in the computer system- so everyone would be aware. We collectively came up with great choices on their menu that I could eat. After ordering one of the items, I was having a mild reaction and he offered immediately to switch it out and provided suggestions of safer things. I highly recommend it as a safe place to eat for "foodals" (food allergic people) and I will go back. Overall the flavor was great, a few minor adjustments, but I think they have it right. I recommend they get certified in each location but I think they will nail it. 

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