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eating out with food allergies

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Ming Tsai’s Food For Thought

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My journey with food allergies began when I opened my first restaurant, Blue Ginger, in 1998. I felt it was important that our kitchen be mindful of food allergies to ensure that all customers could safely dine with us. Little did I know that soon enough food allergies would become an enormous part of my everyday life. 

Just a few years after opening Blue Ginger, my oldest son was diagnosed with multiple food allergies; in fact, he was born severely allergic to soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, shellfish, and eggs. At first, as a chef, I thought it was an unfunny joke from upstairs. But I soon realized it would be an invaluable lesson and opportunity. I quickly learned that trying to eat at restaurants with food allergies was a much larger task than I imagined. Even though I had established protocols in my restaurant for those with food allergies, most other restaurants didn’t take the same care. I can recall a few times where my family and I were turned away because the chef or restaurant did not want to accommodate us. There were a few occasions where my son was accidentally served a dish containing a small amount of one of his allergens, and within minutes he began exhibiting symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction. As a parent, it’s one the scariest experiences. Thankfully, my wife is a trained nurse, and we were able to spot the signs quickly and administer epinephrine right away. 

First implemented at Blue Ginger, and later at Blue Dragon (which is 100% peanut and tree nut free), we created a book that includes every dish on the menu and a comprehensive list of ingredients separated by dish components (i.e. proteins, starches, vegetables, sauces, and garnishes). This way, the patron and restaurant staff can easily determine which part of the dish has the allergen and omit the item from their order. For example, a customer with a peanut allergy would still be able to have the Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce by opting for an alternate (and equally delicious) dipping sauce. 

Additionally, any ingredient processed and received from outside vendors is starred and the ingredients are indexed in our system (e.g., dried *egg* pasta). A highlighted ingredient indicates that it is one of the top eight food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, shellfish, fish, milk, or egg. Our protocols also ensure proper lines of communication between the front of house staff and the kitchen. Every manager, server, and bartender is trained to ensure all customers can safely dine with us. You can find an example of our documentation here.

My family’s experiences, and the knowledge that comes with being a restaurant owner and chef, inspired me to champion the first bill in Massachusetts to require all local restaurants to comply with food allergy awareness guidelines. It took four years working with the Massachusetts legislature to write Bill S. 2701, which was eventually signed into law in early 2009.  

I’m incredibly proud of the work that we’ve done in Massachusetts to help those with food allergies have a more positive restaurant experience. As a chef, restaurateur, and a food allergy parent, I’ve experienced this issue from multiple sides. From the customer perspective, it’s important to notify the restaurant when making the reservation, triple-check that the server understands the severity of the allergy, and do a final check when the food arrives at the table for any visible cross-contact with your allergen or mistakes. Food allergies are a two-way street. From the restaurant perspective, we need to have procedures in place to make sure customers can safely eat, but we also need to be made aware of any allergies and understand the severity so that we can accommodate. Over the years, I’ve developed a useful and effective way to better determine the severity of people’s food allergies. I ask, “Is using the same fryer okay?” The point we are getting at here is if shrimp is fried in a fryer, could the customer eat fries out of that same fryer? Depending on the answer we then have a better understanding as to the severity of the food allergy, which we use as a directive to the kitchen staff. 

Restaurants should care about food allergies not only because it keeps their patrons safe, but also because it’s smart business. The hospitality industry can be challenging, and meeting customer’s demands is always of the utmost importance. At the end of the day, we are all fighting for loyal customers. 

I guarantee you, if you serve a food allergy customer a delicious and safe meal, and they leave smiling, you’ll have a customer for life.

Peace and Good Eating, 

Chef Ming Tsai

 

Ming Tsai holds an equity stake in Allergy Amulet.

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Spokin’s Susie Hultquist: A Fearless Food Allergy Mama!

Susie and her food-allergic daughter, Natalie.

Susie and her food-allergic daughter, Natalie.

If you’ve followed Allergy Amulet for a while, you know our team was founded by a female and that we love to support female entrepreneurs!

Unsurprisingly, we’re big fans of Susie Hultquist and the team she’s assembled at Spokin. This Chi-town team has built an app to help make managing food allergies easier! We recently sat down with Susie and asked her a few questions.

1. We understand you left your financial career on Wall Street to start Spokin. When did the “light bulb” moment happen?

It happened when my co-worker was selling girl scout cookies. I wanted to buy some, but in order to do that, I had to get ahold of a package to check the label and ensure they were safe for my family. I then went to their website to make sure the cookies were also available in our area. It took me 15 minutes to track down all the information I needed! That’s when I realized I was probably not the only person managing food allergies searching for this same information, and that there was a clear need to streamline and consolidate food safety information for the food allergy community.

At the time I was managing my company’s consumer internet portfolio and saw how different businesses were managing pain points. No one was solving this one, and I felt I was uniquely positioned to do so.

2. How long did it take to launch the app? 

It was two years in the making. I started by meeting with a lot of people who have food allergies. From there, we developed a content strategy and hired a graphic designer to work on app designs. We just celebrated the app’s first birthday!

3. What is your “why”?

My daughter Natalie. She’s allergic to peanuts and several tree nuts. I am determined to make her life easier and to help her live the fullest life possible. That’s what gets me up every day. 

A food allergy diagnosis often comes with a lot of no’s when it comes to food, and I want to be able to say yes as often as I can!

4. Spokin has a lot of new features and capabilities on the app. What are you most excited about?

Far and away is the map functionality! If you’re in the app and search within the “eateries” category you can choose any city in the US and see in seconds all the restaurants, bakeries, and ice cream shops others in the Spokin community have recommended. We now have 2.7 million reviews on the app and reviews span across 18 countries! 

To find in seconds all these yes’s after so many no’s is amazing. And it’s built by the food allergy community! This community is so generous. 

5. What does Spokin mean?

It’s a play on the word spoken. I had so many amazing interactions with people in the food allergy community that gave me advice verbally (where to eat in London, what chocolate chips to bake with, what to take with us on an airplane, etc.) but once spoken, that advice then vanished into thin air. All of this knowledge needed to be captured and shared with everyone. The idea was that if we built this platform, we could harness and share all of this great food wisdom with the food allergy community at large. 

6. When do you plan to release the Android version of the app?

We have started an Android waiting list and it’s on our product roadmap. We’re currently assessing demand, so please add your email to the Android list on our website, if interested! 

7. When you’re not focused on helping the food allergy community, what do you enjoy doing?

Spending time with my girls and my husband! We love to cook together, run together, and travel when we can. My girls all have very different interests so it’s fun to watch them pursue their passions. 

8. Since Spokin is based in Chicago, we have to know: do you cheer for the White Sox or the Cubs?

I love the Cubs, but I applaud the White Sox for offering peanut-free ballgames!

9. What’s your long-term vision for Spokin?

If everyone in the US with food allergies shared five recommendations we could build a database of 75 million data points that everyone can access! We’ve estimated that if it takes you 15 minutes a day to manage food allergies, then you can save a year of your life by having all of this information accessible to you. 

If you haven’t downloaded the Spokin app we recommend you check it out ASAP! Both Susie (Susie in the Spokin app) and Allergy Amulet’s founder, Abi Barnes, (allergy_amulet_abi in the Spokin app) have provided lots of recommendations!

-      Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team

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