Allergy Eats | The Leading Guide to Allergy Friendly Restaurants Nationwide
AllergyEats is a crowd-sourced U.S. restaurant guide for the food allergy community. AllergyEats user rates a restaurant, it helps the entire food allergy community make more informed and comfortable dining decisions
Since AllergyEats’ inception, I’ve been asked – and have seen others ask – the following questions: “Which are better when it comes to food allergies – chains or independent restaurants?” and “Which are better – large chains or small chains?” The list goes on, with the type of cuisine, type of restaurant, etc. Throughout the years, my answer has always been the same:
“There is no pattern to one type of restaurant being better than another, whether chains vs. independents, casual dining vs. fine dining vs. quick serve, etc. It all comes down to the commitment from the top– whether that be the owner of an independent restaurant or the senior management of a chain.”
At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I think we finally found a (generalized) differentiator here. Before I say it, let me reiterate that being allergy-friendly or not still comes down to the individual restaurant or chain, but in general, AllergyEats data strongly suggests that franchised restaurant chains are less allergy-friendly than their company-owned and operated competitors.
Here’s some data from a 3-year look back. Among 78 of the largest casual dining restaurant chains in America, the average AllergyEats allergy-friendliness rating for restaurant chains that own their own restaurants is a healthy 4.17. For franchised chains? A thud-worthy 3.77. Note too that the average franchise rating is helped dramatically by 2 of the biggest on the list – Red Robin (4.07 rating, partially franchised) and Outback Steakhouse (4.13). Take out these and the #’s are much worse, led by the other large franchisor, Applebee’s at a dreadful 3.13. To be fair, there are duds amongst the company-owned and operated restaurant chains as well, such as Cracker Barrel (3.09).
Overall, however, the data is the data. Even if I looked at AllergyEats’ ratings since inception nearly 10 years ago, the score would be 4.02 v. 3.70 in favor of the company-owned restaurant chains.
So who’s got the greater incentive to become allergy-friendly?
Here’s my theory. I still believe – as demonstrated by the outliers above – that generalities are just that, and that every restaurant chain and individual restaurant needs to be considered on its own merit (thus, the reason AllergyEats exists). I also still believe that the driving factor behind any restaurant being food allergy-friendly – as mentioned above – is commitment. Lastly, I strongly believe that what drives many restaurants to be food allergy-friendly is simple economics. And therein lies the rub.
A franchisor has less economic incentive to put the kind of strict rules and protocols in place that make a restaurant food allergy-friendly than a chain that owns and operates all of their restaurants.
Franchised restaurant chains make most of their money off royalties from the revenues of their franchisees (generally, they take 4% of sales). Chains that own their restaurants make their money off the profits of the restaurants. There’s an important difference between making money from revenues v. profits. A restaurant that becomes food allergy-friendly should see a nice boost to revenues – let’s say, for this example, they go up only 5%. However, because the cost of labor, rent, overhead, etc. are relatively fixed, that 5% increase in sales can translate into a 12% increase in profits. For a franchisor, a 5% increase in the sales of their chain’s restaurants equates to a similar (5%) increase in profits. So, the financial rewards and return on investment for taking the steps to be food allergy-friendly are greater for company-owned chains than for franchisors– and thus the motivation is greater too.
Further, while chains that own their restaurants are focused on maximizing the profits of their restaurants to maximize their company-level profits, franchised chains need to focus on selling new franchises in order to grow, taking away from a focus on maximizing restaurant profitability. Certainly, they want franchisee sales to grow, but the bigger long-term bang for their buck comes from increasing the number of franchises. Again, the motivation to increase profits by being allergy-friendly is strongly in favor of the chains that own and operate their restaurants.
Back in the day, I was a financial analyst and portfolio manager. I spent a stint as a restaurant analyst. I remember going to Oak Brook, IL to visit McDonald’s – one of the largest franchisors in the world. I’ll never forget staying on the campus of Hamburger U (yep, you can’t make that up) and turning on the TV at night, only to find that the “cable channels” consisted of how to make a Big Mac, how to make a double cheeseburger, etc. McDonald’s, due to their size and name recognition, could control virtually everything their franchisors did in their restaurants. However, they’re the exception rather than the rule. In general, it is a lot easier for Maggiano’s Little Italy (owned and operated), for example, to get mandates from the corporate level to the restaurant level than it is for Texas Roadhouse (franchised). Consistency matters, especially when food allergies are considered.
Again, I share this information for the sake of public interest. I strongly reiterate that every restaurant and every chain needs to be measured on its own merits (using AllergyEats, of course!). There are plenty of strong franchise chains – Outback, Red Robin, and Vitality Bowls to name a few – and plenty of weak company-owned chains that buck the norm presented above.
YOU can help us see if the trend continues over the coming years or help us find NEW trends! Just rate every one of your restaurant experiences on the AllergyEats website or app. Chains or independents, quick serve or fine dining, Chinese or Italian – they all matter. Every new rating makes AllergyEats a more valuable tool for the entire food allergy community, so please help us right now. We’re all in this together!
This question has vexed me for years. Despite being two different types of restaurants – Chipotle, a fast-casual Mexican restaurant, and Subway, a quick-service sub shop – the setup of each is similar with what I refer to as an assembly line process of creating a guest’s meal. In just looking at their food preparation line and frequenting each restaurant often, one would think that they’d have similar abilities to accommodate food-allergic guests. However, they don’t. Chipotle is a perennial inhabitant of a spot on AllergyEats’ Top 10 Most Allergy-Friendly Restaurant Chains in America list with an overall AllergyEats allergy-friendliness rating of 4.28. On the other hand, Subway has a dismal AllergyEats rating of 3.08 of 5 (US only). So, I decided to call a handful of Subway AND Chipotle restaurants in markets across the US and ask the simplest of questions for comparison.
Both Use An Assembly Line
Both Chipotle and Subway start building a guest’s meal on one end of their food prep line with the “container,” as I’ll call it (sandwich bread, tortilla, bowl, etc.). They each place it on foil (Chipotle) or paper (Subway). They each then slide this “container” down a counter of food, adding products the guest wants as they go. The main proteins and other key ingredients are assembled in the first half, with “toppings” added in the second. (e.g. For a burrito, I might put chicken, black beans, and brown rice on in the first half, with salsa, cheese, and sour cream added in the second. Or for a sub, ham and cheese at the beginning, with lettuce, onions, and pickles at the end.) The final product is then wrapped and ready to go.
A burrito being made on the Chipotle assembly line.
So you see, the restaurants are seemingly very much alike. Now, let me point out a few differences. Subway has a toaster that they use in the middle of the prep for some subs. Chipotle’s food is generally “scooped” from containers, whereas Subway’s sandwiches are assembled by hand (the meats separated by paper for proper proportions). For liquid or semi-liquid toppings, like vinegar or mayo, Subway has squirt bottles, where Chipotle uses a ladle to again scoop queso sauce, hot salsa, and other liquids.
A Subway sandwich being made on the assembly line.
Of the major allergens, Chipotle is probably most challenged by dairy and wheat. Subway is also challenged by these, though they also have to consider soy (in several items), and occasional egg, fish, shellfish, and even tree nuts & peanuts (in cookies). That said, given the assembly line style of preparation and the standardized food products delivered to their store (such that they have an allergen chart applicable to the whole country), I still believe that Subway should be able to accommodate the food allergy community as well, or close to as well, as Chipotle.
In my opinion, Subway should also have a lesser chance of cross-contact by far. Their food is much less likely to spill and they don’t ladle liquids, choosing instead for a controlled squeeze bottle. The toaster is a risk, but even that can be easily accommodated. The biggest risk should be the potential for cross-contact in the “toppings” area given the use of hands to pick up the food, though even that should have an easy work-around. On the flip side, Chipotle has food that can fall all over the place and liquids that can easily be spilled as they’re ladled across the counter to your food.
So, in the final comparison, I would say Subway and Chipotle each have an easy-to-manage assembly line food preparation area, Subway has a slightly greater challenge of managing more allergens, and Chipotle has a greater cross-contact risk. Advantage? I’d say Subway.
So why does Subway only have a dreadful 3.08 AllergyEats allergy-friendliness rating versus Chipotle’s amazing 4.28? Even other fast food chains are a half point higher than Subway!
As always, it comes down to commitment from management. In this case, I would also add the issue of Subway being a franchised chain as opposed to Chipotle, where the company owns all its restaurants.
Consistency is Key When It Comes to Food Allergy Dining
I am a regular at Subway because my son, despite having tree nut, dairy, and sesame allergies, loves eating there (and we’ve learned how to navigate them). He actually feels safe at Subway because he can see them prepping his food and he can tell them what to do if they’re about to inadvertently make a mistake (which happens way too often). Due to my experiences there, I can tell you that the employees are simply not trained in any responsible way by management, if at all.
I am also a regular at Chipotle and, as most of you have experienced, they clearly have set procedures and protocols in place that are followed to a T most of the time.
Beginning with Subway, every experience I have there is a new adventure. Most of their restaurants don’t have a copy of the ingredient list on the premises, and most don’t even know there’s one online. (That list is important and extremely helpful. Pull it up on your phone if you visit Subway.) Employee reactions when I tell them we have a food allergy? Most often I get a look of “uh, so, why are you telling me that?,” but in fairness there are some who know the next step if nothing else – changing gloves. For those employees who don’t, I ask and they usually do so without questioning – though I have had some who balked at first. And so on down the line. Unfortunately, I don’t think they have a procedure in place to get fresh “toppings” (lettuce, onion, pickles, tomato, etc.) from the back to eliminate cross-contact risk. Why? That should be easy!
At Chipotle, I disclose an allergy and the machine is in motion. Gloves are changed (hands sometimes washed in the middle), allergy is announced, request is made if the customer wants food taken from the back (to prevent their biggest risk – cross-contact – mentioned earlier), and often the same person handles the meal down the whole food prep line to prevent any other cross-contact risk.
I emailed Subway and asked if I could speak to someone about food allergy procedures and for information beyond the allergen chart they have online. They forwarded me the link to the Nutrition & Allergy info on their website. Very nice. I emailed again with more detail and got a call back. The representative told me she wasn’t sure what each individual franchise owner requires or does in their store with respect to food allergies and that I’d get a call back from the regional office with 2 days to speak with someone more knowledgeable. That call never came, but it was clear that there is NO corporate policy.
So, to see if my experiences were a fair representation, a colleague and I called Subway AND Chipotle restaurants across the US (in many different markets and at different times). Basically, we asked if they have food allergy procedures, if they have a food allergy chart (which I knew Subway did), and what they will do if I came in later with my dairy-allergic son.
Over 80% of those answering the phone at Chipotle (most not needing to get a manager) not only knew they had food allergy procedures, but could rattle them off easily: wash hands, change gloves, clean surface, get clean utensils, get protein from the grill (where no dairy is ever present).
Subway’s answers were, like my experiences, all over the map. Knowledge levels varied dramatically employee to employee.
Many admitted (thankfully) that they didn’t know what to do. Regarding food allergy protocols, too many said they had no idea about any, though some were able to redeem themselves with a manager’s help. When prompted, a decent number knew that they should change gloves, use new knives, and wipe down the prep area with a rag and “sanitizing solution.” That was positive. Unfortunately, almost none knew they had a food allergy chart and, to make it worse, MOST thought there was no dairy in any of the breads. In fact, about 1/2 of their breads contain dairy! Regarding the toaster, answers about preventing cross-contact using the toaster (which they can) were completely inconsistent. But the best answer in the bunch was the employee from Utah who said they’ve never had a food-allergic customer… ever. There are 32 million of us – someone must live in Utah!
In the end, it seems as though the way to navigate Subway safely, as my son has for years, is to take control yourself. Check their allergen chart on your phone, tell them exactly what you need them to do with respect to gloves, utensils, etc., and watch them like a hawk for mistakes. (Of course, you should watch all restaurants prepare your food when possible, not just Subway.) Depending on your level of comfort, you may want to avoid “toppings” altogether.
The other catch is that they’re a franchised organization – and a HUGE one at that (the largest in the world!). This is not to say that all franchised restaurant chains are bad with food allergies (an analysis we’ll be sharing with you soon). It is to say, however, that weak requirements by central management lead to even weaker actions by the individual owners of a franchised organization. In other words, if Subway’s corporate office doesn’t dictate strict policies on food allergies (like they do with the setup of the store, the meal prep line, the way the food is prepared in general, etc.), then each restaurant is on its own. Again, some franchise chains do a great job, but the potential for failure without corporate-level protocols is much greater – and Subway is exhibit A.
Being Food Allergy-Friendly is Smart Business
Every restaurant or chain owner has the right to operate their business as they see fit. I’ve always been a believer in that. I don’t believe restaurants have to be allergy-accommodative in any way if they so choose and I respect the rights of those restaurants who rely on a certain allergen or type of cuisine as part of their concept (e.g. Five Guys with peanuts). That said, it doesn’t take someone with my financial background to recognize the foolishness of not catering to our food allergy community – a very vocal, very loyal community of diners who stick to those restaurants and chains we feel most comfortable with. I’ve done the math many times and can say with a high level of confidence that being allergy-friendly can boost a restaurant’s profits by up to 25% or more! That’s a ridiculously high number given the nature of the restaurant business.
Given the ubiquity of the Subway brand around the US – and the world – it’s disappointing that they don’t recognize the value of our community. Clearly, as Chipotle shows, Subway can be allergy-friendly. How great would it be if all 27,000+ Subway restaurants in America were a place where the food allergy community could feel comfortable? With roughly 8x as many US restaurants as Chipotle, and one seemingly every few exits on the interstates, navigating our allergies would be that much easier.
For now, however, proceed with caution at Subway. They are no Chipotle.
What do you think? How is your local Subway? Are they one of the good or one of the not-so-good? Share your story here.
And don’t forget to rate all your restaurant experiences on the AllergyEats app or website – whether Subway, Chipotle, or any other restaurant in the U.S. Each new rating makes AllergyEats more valuable for our entire community.
Last July, we published a blog post entitled “Recent Concerns About Food Allergy Risks at Starbucks Explained.” The genesis of that was a change Starbucks had made to remove the labels on milk pitchers
behind the counter such that various forms of milk – dairy, soy, coconut, almond, etc. – would no longer have dedicated pitchers. In other words, each pitcher could be used alternatively for any form of milk, thus increasing cross contact risk.
Despite the disappointment from these actions, I praised Starbucks’ corporate office for “taking the time to address my concerns and clarify, openly and honestly, the risks to our community.” During that conversation, it came to my attention that there already had been a cross contact risk from these pitchers (so this “new” revelation might have been a blessing in disguise) as well as a declaration from Starbucks that food-allergic customers need to know that cross contact is a real risk and that Starbucks cannot guarantee safety.
New Espresso Beverage Made With Egg Whites
Once again, I need to praise Starbucks’ corporate office even if I’m disappointed with a recent change that took place yesterday. In an effort to provide transparency and share new risks with our community proactively and timely, they reached out to AllergyEats to inform us of a new offering that increases the risk of consuming Starbucks beverages for those with egg allergies.
Yesterday, Starbucks introduced a new espresso beverage, the Cloud Macchiato, in both the US and Canada. As they describe, the drink draws inspiration from a “meringue milk” beverage, common in Spain. A key ingredient in their “special recipe” is egg whites. While the milk foam in the product can be customized to use coconut milk, almond milk, or soy milk, the egg white powder to create the meringue texture cannot be removed.
Importantly, not only is this drink unsafe for those with egg allergies, but the egg-based Cloud Foam “is whipped in a blender that is also used for Frappuccinos and other Cold Foam beverages,” while “the hot Cloud Foam is steamed in a pitcher with a steaming wand that is used to craft other beverages.”
In other words, it appears that virtually all Starbucks drinks now have a significantly heightened risk of cross contact that could produce an allergic reaction in those with egg allergies.
Following my conversation with Starbucks last July, I stated that “there are no initiatives in place at the moment to improve accommodations for food-allergic customers at Starbucks.” Unfortunately, I still believe this to be true.
Is Starbucks Allergy-Friendly Overall?
Yesterday, I asked Starbucks for an on-the-record answer to the question “Is Starbucks becoming less accommodating to those with food allergies?” You read the answer and be the judge.
“It is Starbucks goal to create a welcoming environment for all customers. The introduction of an egg ingredient into our retail stores is not new. We provide information about our products online and in our Mobile App so customers can make the best decision for their specific dietary needs. We also inform customers that we cannot guarantee our products are allergen-free because we use shared equipment to store, prepare and serve them.”
To that end, here are the links to the ingredients of their new beverages:
I also asked why a chain the size of Starbucks, with a core product (coffee) that appeals to a majority of Americans, at a time when it is deemed that at least 5% (and, per new research, 10%) of adults have a food allergy, would not consider it a smart business decision to make efforts toward creating a more allergy-accommodating environment. That question wasn’t addressed.
Nevertheless, I once again DO applaud Starbucks for being up-front, timely, and transparent. I appreciate that the sharing of new information in this way is itself allergy-friendly. Of course, I continue to be disappointed by their lack of leadership with respect to food allergy accommodations given their ability to affect positive change on a massive scale.
But that’s just one individual’s opinion. What do you think? How do you feel about the new beverage offering? What do you think of their statement on accommodating food-allergic guests? Do you feel safe or unsafe at Starbucks given your individual food allergies? Please share your opinion. We always want to hear it!
(And while we’ve got your attention, get ready for AllergyEats’ newest list of the Top 10 Allergy-Friendly Restaurant Chains in America! The 2019 list – our 8thannual – will be in your inbox on Monday!)
Fast food. We can debate the health merits of consuming it, but one of the main reasons it is popular (besides speed) is the consistency of menu items around most of the country and even the world. For example, if my egg-allergic daughter is able to eat a Jr. Cheeseburger without mayo at a Wendy’s here in the Boston area, she likely can do so anywhere in the country.
Bad example. That’s no longer true.
New Egg Allergy Risk at Wendy’s
Wendy’s recently announced a change in their burger-making process (as of 1/1/18) that renders many products previously “safe” for egg-allergic diners now UNSAFE even when requesting mayo be left off. Why? Wendy’s made a corporate-level decision that, rather than squirt mayo and ketchup on burgers with traditional squirt bottles, it is now better practice to spread condiments on with spoons (for consistency around the burgers). In other words, one spoon goes into a mayo bin and is then used to spread the mayo onto a burger bun while another spoon does the same with ketchup.
The result? NEW cross-contamination risk.
All hope is not lost if you’re a Wendy’s fan with an egg allergy, however. Wendy’s is recommending that if you want a burger without mayo but with ketchup that you ask the server for a burger leaving off both products, requesting ketchup packets instead that you can apply yourself. This is a reasonable solution (to a problem that maybe shouldn’t have arisen in the first place, but that’s Wendy’s prerogative).
I asked the company why not have a separate ketchup spoon for egg-allergic customers that would never touch mayo. The problem is that even this separate spoon would go into the same ketchup bin that the contaminated ketchup spoon does. So the only solution would be a separate ketchup bin as well, which they’re not going to do (and, frankly, could be confusing enough for young, inexperienced staff that it might actually increase the risk of cross-contact versus the currently proposed solution).
I believe FARE was the first to report on this yesterday and I thank them for finding and breaking the basics of this new news. It is important to note however that the “affected burgers” go beyond the 5 FARE mentioned (Double Stack, Jr. Hamburger and Cheeseburger, Kids Hamburger and Cheeseburger). In fact, the company told me that this change affects all burger products, except the Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, which doesn’t come with ketchup anyway. Similarly, chicken sandwiches don’t have ketchup either (and some don’t have mayo as a standard ingredient).
The bottom line is that there’s a new risk at Wendy’s for those with egg allergies. There is a workaround in place that will allow you to still have all the products you previously enjoyed, but you MUST be aware of the new changes and how to now order your burgers.
This is reminiscent of Wendy’s “buttered bun issue” 7 years ago… but that’s another story.
Please be cautious, all of you, and of course ALWAYS have epinephrine with you when you dine out – at Wendy’s or anywhere!
Feel free to add your comments about this news and blog post below.
And while I’ve got you, please rate any recent restaurant experiences on the AllergyEats app or website. Rating a restaurant takes just a minute, but every new rating you add makes AllergyEats a more valuable resource for our entire food allergy community!
Chinese food – one of the “scarier” cuisine choices for food-allergic diners due to the frequent presence of soy, sesame, and peanuts, among other allergens. However, as we often say (and as AllergyEats user reviews show), it IS possible to get a safe, Asian-inspired meal if prepared by a restaurant that truly understands, and commits itself to, food allergies. Such is the case, we believe, with Pei Wei Asian Kitchen, a fast casual chain with 169 restaurants in 21 states across the U.S., plus 5 international locations.
Pei Wei came out with a press release last Tuesday, addressing new gluten-free menu options and reiterating a commitment to their clean label initiative “The Wei Forward” and their “Made For You” program, which is designed for guests with all kinds of special diets (including food allergies). [*As part of this release, Pei Wei announced a partnership with AllergyEats. More details at the end of this blog post.]
Not entirely aware of Pei Wei’s efforts to accommodate the food allergy and gluten free community, we called senior management to learn more.
I confess to being blown away.
The First Step Towards Making Things “Wei” Better
It all starts with The Wei Forward, Pei Wei’s “guiding principle on how we think food should be,” (not just at Pei Wei, but across the restaurant industry). Their Wei Forward website has great detail and I recommend you click the link to visit it. However, let me share their summary:
“We believe that for food to deliver world-class flavor, it should begin with simple, fresh ingredients that are minimally processed and free of artificial color and preservatives. We believe consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, so they’ll be able to make informed choices without being misled by crafty marketing. At Pei Wei, we take pride in preparing our fresh whole food in-house and make our dishes to order. And with The Wei Forward, we make it easy for you to eat the food you love, with less of the stuff you don’t.”
As part of this commitment, Pei Wei lists EVERY ingredient in 3 of their popular dishes (including their most popular dish, Wei Better Orange Chicken) on the website, with a goal of having the full ingredient list of EVERY dish available and published over the months ahead! That transparency is obviously great for food-allergic diners! In addition, the fact that the food is prepared in-house, made-to-order, and customizable (to the extent possible) is also a huge benefit. For those who are gluten-free or allergic to wheat, Pei Wei is continuing to expand their gluten-free offerings too, with the addition of 4 new gluten-free dishes, including their very popular Kung Pao and Mongolian. Roughly half of Pei Wei’s rice bowls are now available gluten-free, and we expect to see even more in the future.
Allergy Accommodations Are About More Than Ingredients
More important than just introducing new gluten-free dishes however, and relevant to the food allergy community as well, Pei Wei understands the difference between a meal simply having gluten-free ingredients versus creating a meal free of gluten, including cross-contact prevention, and safe for those with Celiac disease or a wheat allergy (this applies to other allergies too) – “Our goal is not to be ‘gluten-friendly.’ Our goal is to be able to deliver a fantastic, fresh-made Asian dish to someone that is completely gluten free.” The key to doing this is out of the customer’s sight, in the kitchen. So, what happens in the kitchen?
Pei Wei has a separate celiac workstation in their kitchen, sterilized woks and utensils for preparing allergy meals (with red handles to indicate their designation for allergy meals only), allergy buttons on their point-of-sale systems for communication from those taking the orders to the kitchen, and different colored bowls for food allergy meals (white, instead of red) as an indication that the food allergy was acknowledged and the meal prepared appropriately. This entire process was recently enhanced, so hopefully Pei Wei “regulars” will notice the positive changes.
Per Pei Wei’s Chief Marketing Officer, “It’s really important that every single customer at every single Pei Wei, every single day, if they have a special dietary need, is going to be safe, so we take it very, very seriously. We want to be able to serve all of the members of our community, not just those whom it’s easy for us to serve.”
But is this commitment shared across senior management? Well, when the CEO’s family is impacted by Celiac disease and a number of Board members have food allergies, everybody understands the importance of proper procedures and protocols. This is the difference between Pei Wei (along with other restaurants and chains that “get it”) and the many restaurants where food allergy accommodations are lacking. Commitment from the top is key!
Of course, none of this commitment nor any set of procedures & protocols are going to make a difference without appropriate staff training. Again, Pei Wei is impressive. Food allergy training occurs for every worker on every shift.
Pei Wei Done Your “Wei”
Given Pei Wei’s commitment to transparency, we asked them some of the tougher questions we know you want (and deserve) to have answered.
Are there peanuts or tree nuts on the premises? Peanuts are in the Pad Thai, but are kept in a sealed container in the kitchen. Staff is trained to avoid cross-contact.
Are any allergies especially challenging to accommodate? Soy and corn are particularly challenging allergens for Pei Wei; otherwise “we feel very good about our ability to handle just about any allergen.” [We were impressed, during our conversation, that management often referred to accommodating non-Big 8 allergens, such as garlic.]
Egg is listed as an ingredient in a lot of dishes. Can you still accommodate an egg allergy? While egg is traditionally in some dishes, like Pad Thai and fried rice, they can be made without it upon request. In other dishes that feature an egg-battered chicken, for example, the guest can modify the dish to include tofu and/or vegetables as the protein selection.
How about sesame? Pei Wei does have sesame seeds and use sesame oil in some dishes, but there are options for an individual with a sesame allergy.
The online allergen chart shows a lot of “X’s” – dishes that contain a certain allergy. That suggests that there are a lot of dishes food-allergic individuals can’t have. As mentioned, Pei Wei can customize many of its dishes to remove certain allergens/ingredients upon request. The online allergen chart is currently being renovated to better reflect the available options for diners with food allergies.
Part of what makes food allergy accommodations a little easier for Pei Wei, alongside the fact that food is prepped in-house and is made-to-order, is that the process is relatively simple in choosing a protein, vegetables, and a sauce. Much of what we, as a community, would need to avoid would be in the sauces, which can obviously be substituted. We still do have to ask about the proteins, as some may have been battered or have a marinade that includes our allergen, but those are obviously substitutable as well.
For those with other specific questions or recommendations, Pei Wei acknowledges that “we’re active listeners on social media and we have a guest contact hotline, and we review those to see what folks are asking for” regarding the next steps in the continually evolving and improving Wei Forward initiative.
Walking the “Wok”: A Call for Change in the Restaurant Industry
Lastly, as a tremendous sign of commitment to the food allergy community, Pei Wei started an FDA petition in late September in order to insist that all restaurants label all ingredients in every dish for customers to see. “I called for regulation of our industry, mostly because the industry is doing a terrible job of regulating itself in this area.” So far, the National Restaurant Association is not supporting this petition, nor do I think they ever will. Their constituency will not only (understandably, to a degree) balk at the additional costs they will bare, but they’ll be afraid of their secret recipes being “stolen.” Pei Wei believes this fear is unfounded. Knowing a meal’s ingredients and knowing how to prepare that meal are two separate things. “There is nothing that somebody would have to disclose in an ingredient statement that would compromise their secrecy or recipes. We’re not asking for the secret formula to Coke; and by the way, Coca Cola is required to put on their packaging exactly what we’re asking – a nutrition facts panel and an ingredient statement.”
There has been a lot of interest from the food allergy community for this very type of labeling requirement in restaurants for years. It’s nice to see a large restaurant chain on board.
Pei Wei isn’t just talking the talk; they’re walking the walk. From their Wei Forward web page:
“Our beliefs center around the need to demand transparency and allow consumers to make informed dining decisions. Allowing guests to know the ingredients in their food not only calls attention to its nutritional value, it also makes it easier for dietary preferences to be carefully accommodated. We hope to affect more than your health with this information about your food, we want to empower you with a healthy peace of mind about it.”
As previously mentioned, Pei Wei has committed to have all ingredients of all their dishes online by the end of 2020, combined with their clean label initiative to eliminate artificial colors, preservatives, and additives.
Pei Wei has collected over 2,000 signatures for their FDA petition so far, but we, as food allergy individuals and advocates, have the opportunity to dramatically increase that number. We encourage you to visit their change.org page, support their petition, and share it broadly within our community.
That’s the current status of The Wei Forward. But again, The Wei Forward is not a static program. This is an evolutionary process by Pei Wei to “clean up” their food, increase transparency, improve the options for those with Celiac disease, and accommodate as many special dining needs, including food allergies, as possible.
Personally, I’m looking forward to my first visit the week before Christmas near St. Louis. I’ll have 3 food-allergic kids (tree nut, dairy, egg, and sesame) to really put them to the test!
If you’ve dined at a Pei Wei recently – or anywhere, of course – we encourage you to rate your experiences on the AllergyEats website or app. Each new review you provide makes AllergyEats a more valuable resource for the entire food allergy community. We are all in this together!
[*AllergyEats Partnership Program is designed to provide those restaurants that want to communicate with our community a platform to highlight their food allergy accommodations. This program naturally attracts those who are comfortable that they can provide an excellent guest experience for food-allergic diners. As part of the program, AllergyEats creates “enhanced listings” of these partners’ restaurants within AllergyEats’ search results by including additional information provided by the restaurant, such as interactive allergen menus (for those who have them), links to relevant pages on their websites, an “Allergen Commitment Statement” that we ask every partner to write, and more. CRITICAL to note is that AllergyEats does not, and will never, compromise the integrity of either our user reviews or our published information. The responsibility for us to maintain high ethical standards is paramount given the potential devastating effects of any “foul play” – and as parents of food-allergic children ourselves, as well as long-time advocates for this community, we hope you know we get it! User ratings are never removed or altered. The associated reviews are also never removed or altered, except in the rare case when the commentary is not related to food allergies. Further, the publishing of blog posts such as this are not a part of our partnership program; however, where we see relevant, important, or interesting information – from a partner or non-partner – we want to present that to you. If you have any questions about our partnership program, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like Pei Wei, we value transparency – in our practices as well as others’.]
Over the years, we’ve been asked time and time again to consider expanding AllergyEats into Canada. As of today, there is no AllergyEats Canada (though it certainly does make sense, doesn’t it?). In the meantime, however, we’re happy to have a great relationship with Toronto-based food allergy blogger, Kathleen O’Hagan, who has a son with multiple food allergies and is the founder of Allergybites, a restaurant review website featuring accommodating restaurants in Toronto and more. Kathleen was gracious enough to write the following AllergyEats blog post for those living in, or traveling to, Toronto or Ottawa with food allergies.
Your neighbours to the north may be super duper friendly… but are we allergy-friendly? Read on to find out…
The truth is, there are A LOT of allergy-friendly options in major cities like Toronto and Ottawa these days, but it can be challenging (and stressful!) trying to figure out which ones are free from your family’s allergens, what allergy protocols they have in place, and how well trained their staff is — especially when you’re doing your research from afar.
The good news is, if you’re planning a trip to Canada’s largest city (Toronto) or our nation’s capital (Ottawa), I’m here to help. Ever since my son was diagnosed with multiple allergies almost three years ago, I’ve made it my mission to seek out allergy-friendly restaurants in Toronto (and beyond) and share my findings with the food allergy community. And this includes food-allergic tourists, of course! (We all know how important it is to have your allergy-friendly spots mapped out before you embark on a trip.)
So without further ado, here are the friendliest of the friendly. The most accommodating. The ones free of top allergens and more…
Free of the top 10 allergens, Sorelle and Co. has been providing food allergy families with a safe place to grab a sweet treat or a savoury meal for close to 3 years. And since first launching in 2016, this lovely spot has expanded to 4 locations across the city — so no matter where your hotel happens to be, there’s no excuse not to experience what is truly an elegant dining experience. (They even serve high tea at two of their locations, but you must book your seating in advance.) You can find Sorelle and Co. in Vaughn (north), downtown (central), Yorkville (central), and most recently, in Etobicoke (west). Okay, okay… If you’re in the east end, you may have a problem. But scroll down to #2 for a solution that is pretty wonderful too.
A recent (and much-loved) addition to Toronto’s allergy-friendly scene is fast-casual restaurant & bakery, Hype Food Co. If your travels take you to Toronto’s east end — the Leslieville/Riverdale area specifically — you won’t want to miss this fabulous place. Heck, if your travels don’t take you east, I say: “Go there anyway!” Hype Food Co. is seriously that good. It’s also free of the top 10 allergens, but owner and allergy mama, Pauline Osena, will go one step further to accommodate allergies outside of the top 10 when possible. This adorable spot also has an interactive play area for the little ones, so you can rest your weary (well-travelled) bones while your kiddos play nearby.
Yet another bakery and fast casual spot that can accommodate multiple allergies (and other dietary restrictions) is La Vida Cocoa. This north-Toronto eating spot uses ingredients that are not only top allergen-free, but organic AND low in sugar — making their sweet and savoury options a great choice for diabetics too. And their fabulous selection of frozen items make it easy to stock up on allergen-free foods if you’re staying at an Airbnb. La Vida Cocoa also has an interactive play area for the kids. You know, so they can have their fun… and eat it too.
Calling all pizza lovers! It doesn’t matter what allergies you or your loved ones have, Famoso Pizzeria is always happy to accommodate. While this particular pizzeria isn’t allergen-free, the staff at this lovely Annex location goes above and beyond to accommodate patrons with food allergies. The servers are knowledgeable, patient and really good at making food allergy families feel safe and welcome. And — get this — even if you’re dealing with allergies in the double digits, you can safely eat at Famoso Pizzeria. Just be sure to communicate your allergies with the server before you order!
“Their processes and policies make it the only place that could accommodate my son’s 12+ allergies. The first time we ate there, I cried I was so happy.” – Allison Venditti, Food Allergy Mom
If you’re feeling homesick, give The Bread Essentials in Etobicoke a visit. Josée, the owner and head baker of this nut-free bakery, is so warm and so accommodating that you’ll want to pop by more than once during your stay. And not to worry, if you have multiple allergies, Josée also offers a wide variety of vegan options and doesn’t use soy in any of her recipes. Plus she bakes everything free of wheat on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Josée will go above and beyond to customize her recipes and bake what you need — just be sure to call in advance if you want her to make you something special. P.S. If you want to try some authentic Canadian cuisine, grab one of her delicious tourtieres (meat pies) while you’re there.
If you’re heading to Canada’s capital city, keep your eyes peeled for this lovely teal spot, tucked away on a residential street in Wellington West. Free of dairy, egg, gluten, peanuts and tree nuts, Strawberry Blonde is a little bakery with a huge selection of sweet and savoury items to devour. If you have allergies outside of the 5 listed above, be sure to call in advance to see if they can accommodate you. The owner and baker will be sure to let you know if safe options do exist, and is always transparent with regards to risk of cross contamination. This is another great option for Airbnb-ers looking to stock up on frozen meals and desserts that are allergy-friendly.
This quaint little bakery is located in the outskirts of Ottawa, in the small town of North Gower. But no matter where you are staying, Dolly Doll Cupcake Co. is worth the drive! Not only is this spot free of peanuts, dairy, soy, egg, sesame, mustard, shellfish, sulphites, preservatives and casein, the owner and allergy mom only uses 10 ingredients in her recipes — so there’s a pretty good chance it’s free of your allergens even if they happen to fall in the “less common” category. Dolly Doll will also customize orders upon request and can provide baked goods that are free of sugar, oil, seeds, gluten, and can even cater to those following a FODMAP diet. This spot is super safe, delicious and the owner is as friendly as can be!
While Toronto and Ottawa both have a wide selection of other allergy-friendly options, the eating spots included in this review are either top allergen-free or unbelievably accommodating. If you like to base your travels around your dining experiences, be sure to include some (or all!) of these 7 spots into your Toronto/Ottawa itinerary. Just be sure to contact them in advance if you have any special requests. Most will be more than willing to help you out if they can.
City-specific guide allows AllergyEats users a more effective way to find allergy-friendly restaurants across Manhattan
BOSTON –AllergyEats, the leading peer-reviewed restaurant guide for food-allergic diners, is introducing “AllergyEats NYC”, a designated guide to help app and website users find the most allergy-friendly restaurants across Manhattan.
While AllergyEats users can already search for restaurant reviews in New York City (and every other area in America), this city-specific guide allows the food allergy community to better search the many key regions of the borough and find places to dine near popular landmarks.
“New York City has so many wonderful allergy-friendly options of various cuisines which, when combined with its geographic density, makes it a natural choice for our first city-specific guide,” said Paul Antico, Founder and CEO of AllergyEats. “We saw the need in our community for a guide that allows for easy identification of accommodating dining options near major attractions or in specific regions of the city. This guide allows us to drill down to that level of geographic focus.”
AllergyEats NYC includes a new map feature pinpointing the most allergy-friendly restaurants in four popular Manhattan regions: Uptown, Midtown/Times Square, Midtown South, and Downtown. It also allows users to find and rate any restaurant in each given area of the city using the traditional AllergyEats list option. While AllergyEats NYC is a Manhattan-based guide, other New York City boroughs can still be searched via the core AllergyEats search process at AllergyEats.com and on the mobile app. The guide additionally features New York City-specific blog entries from AllergyEats’ award winning blog and will be fully accessible on both the AllergyEats website and app. This is the second destination-specific guide produced by AllergyEats, joining AllergyEats Disney World which launched in 2011.
AllergyEats (www.AllergyEats.com) is a crowdsourced restaurant guide for the food allergy community, available as a free app on both iTunes and Google Play, as well as on www.allergyeats.com. Food-allergic diners can search for allergy-friendly restaurants in the U.S. based on desired location as well as by dietary restrictions and are encouraged to offer their own ratings and reviews of any restaurant in America where they’ve dined. AllergyEats lists more than 850,000 restaurants nationwide and also offers user comments, web links, menus, directions and more. The app and website, along with AllergyEats’ award-winning blog, annual “Top Ten” listings, and related social media forums, help families with food allergies reduce the guesswork and the anxiety surrounding dining out with food allergies whether they are near home or traveling. For more information, please visit www.AllergyEats.com.
Transparency is great. Transparency allow us, in the food allergy community, to make the most informed choices given our individual allergy sets and risk tolerance. To that end, I am very happy that a Starbucks barista stepped forward with a concern she felt would create greater risk to Starbucks’ food-allergic customers, and I am also very happy that Starbucks corporate office was willing to take the time to address my concerns and clarify, openly and honestly, the risks to our community.
For those who do not know the genesis of this story, a Starbucks barista shared a concern that was widely spread across social media a few days ago. It said, in part, “Starbucks made the decision to stop separating their milks into different steaming pitchers, blender pitchers, and shakers. We took off all the labels and now dairy, soy, coconut milk, almond milk, and other non-dairy liquids are no longer separated in different pitchers and while cross contamination was still an issue, it is now completely unavoidable.”
As this post spread, a few other baristas stepped up and to confirm. In addition, other individuals asked their local Starbucks baristas, called customer service, and even called corporate, all claiming to receive the same information. We wanted to verify or clarify, so we called corporate ourselves and had an excellent, open and frank discussion with a senior rep.
The bottom line is this – the risk level for food-allergic customers at Starbucks has really not changed. However, before anyone gets excited, the bad news is that the cross-contact risk was already significant and probably higher than people realized before.
For anyone who has stepped foot in a Starbucks (and who hasn’t), you know that it is often quite busy and employees have to move fast and keep moving. So the truth of the matter is that, while baristas DID in fact have labels on pitchers detailing the milk that should be used in that pitcher, those labels weren’t always being strictly adhered to and the baristas were often just grabbing whichever was nearest.
So why take off labels? Starbucks says they made the change in the name of transparency. In other words, they don’t want to give a false sense of security (and a false representation of risk) to their food-allergic customers.
Why do I believe them? The fact is that Starbucks is, and has been, very open about the fact that they use shared equipment and have a tremendous cross-contact risk. So even before these labels came off – and even now if you request a “fresh pitcher” that is sanitized– the product is still being exposed to cross-contact risk with the other equipment used to make your drink. That has not changed and will not change. Starbucks cannot guarantee safety from cross-contact and I appreciate that they are willing to make that clear. As a food-allergy advocate and father of kids with food allergies that would be at risk in this situation, am I happy about the level of risk at Starbucks? No. Do I wish they would do more to accommodate our community and make us feel more welcomed? Yes. But do I appreciate the up-front honesty that lets me know this isn’t a risk I want to take? Absolutely!
So, in summary:
Starbucks has and will continue to use shared equipment that poses a cross-contact risk – nothing has changed there
The removal of stickers on steaming and blending pitchers, etc. IS happening, but hasn’t changed the risk; if anything, doing so helps improve transparency about cross-contact risk
Individuals can still request a barista get a fresh pitcher (deemed sanitized), but the cross-contact risk from other equipment will still exist!
Starbucks pitchers on the customer side of the counter with regular milk, soy milk, etc. are also subject to the same cross-contact risk, even though the milk inside will be as advertised
Starbucks is very clear that customers with food allergies need to know that the company cannot guarantee their safety from cross-contact
Unfortunately, there are no initiatives in place at the moment to improve accommodations for food-allergic customers at Starbucks (however, they do read their customer feedback!)
I am very happy this issue came to light and thank those who brought it to our attention. While we would obviously like to be reading about more positive initiatives at Starbucks, we always welcome and appreciate the opportunity to share the truth with all of you, positive or negative.
There has been a lot of disappointing chatter lately as dairy-allergic fans of Red Robin suddenly noticed that the allergy-friendly chain’s burger buns were showing up on the restaurant’s interactive allergen guide as unsafe for those with dairy allergies – a sudden and dramatic change from past practices. We contacted top management at Red Robin and were told this was a temporary change and that the buns would likely be deemed safe again as of Monday.
Here’s a transcript from the company directly.
“The buns do not contain dairy/milk, however we are in the process of changing our cooking procedures/equipment for our buns and with this change our buns will no longer be toasted with an oil – they will be dry toasted. Our current process is to “butter” our buns with a cottonseed oil (no [major] allergens) and the current bun cooking equipment does require an oil for toasting the buns. In some markets, due to the transition of equipment, some areas have run low or out of stock on the cottonseed oil so we have approved the use of another butter oil used in our restaurants to make our buzz sauce. This oil does contain butter. This change is only a temporary change until all restaurants are fully transitioned to the new bun toaster. To protect our Guest, we have added milk/dairy as an allergen to all of our buns (except for the gluten free bun) during this transition period.
Red Robin immediately followed up with this.
I just received an update from our supply chain team and the installation of the new bun toasters in all restaurant will be complete by the end of the week [this weekend]. To provide a bit of a buffer, I will have the milk allergen removed from buns next Monday.
I have to admit that I wish management had given the community (or even just us, to pass on to you) advanced notice of this issue so as not to disappoint any diners. Regardless, I appreciate – once again – management’s concern for the food allergy community and their willingness and desire to take as much extra precaution as possible on our behalf.
So dairy-allergic diners (including my son, if you’re reading), fret not. It’s almost time to enjoy those juicy burgers again!