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food allergic travel

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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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Do Waitstaff Create a False Sense of Security?

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I’m often asked whether a consumer device that tests for unwanted ingredients in foods will give those with food allergies a false sense of security when dining out. My response is usually the same: do waitstaff give the food allergic a false sense of security when assuring customers their food is safe?

From personal experience as a waitress, and as someone with food allergies, I can assure you, it happens.

Roughly a decade ago, I waitressed at a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. It was a fast-paced work environment that demanded recall of dozens of orders and seating positions at any given time. The restaurant was located a few blocks north of Madison Square Garden, so we’d routinely get flooded with hungry patrons before and after performances. During my tenure waiting tables, I grew accustomed to the frequency with which waitstaff made mistakes—and it’s often. A few times a week I would mix up orders, fail to put in special requests, and was once lambasted for accidentally serving a woman regular coke instead of diet. I never made that mistake again.

But there’s a difference between mixing up soft drink orders and forgetting to inform the kitchen of a food allergy. Despite their best efforts and intentions, waitstaff don’t always get it right—even when it comes to food allergies. Many waiters don’t know that pesto usually contains pine nuts, that marzipan is almond paste, or that peanuts and nutmeg are not tree nuts. According to a recent CDC report, restaurants were found responsible for nearly half of all food allergy fatalities over a thirteen-year period. That same report found that less than half of all restaurant managers, and only one third of servers, receive any formal training on food allergies. Legislation is also lagging. Today, only six states (Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Virginia) and two cities (NYC and St. Paul, MN) have passed laws to increase food allergy safety and awareness in restaurants. We’ve clearly got a long way to go.

I’ve also had my fair share of personal experiences with misinformed waitstaff. This past year alone, waitresses at two different restaurants assured me that my dish was allergen-free when, in fact, it was not. One of the more memorable incidents occurred when I was ten. Our family went to a fancy restaurant near our home for my mom’s 40th birthday. I typically wasn’t allowed desserts at restaurants, but my parents decided to make an exception. We informed the waitress of my food allergies, who then confirmed with the chef that the dessert was safe. After sheepishly taking a small bite, the waitress came barreling out of the kitchen towards the table: there was marzipan in the icing (they hadn’t checked with the pastry chef until after it was delivered to our table). Fortunately, I spit the cake out and the reaction did not rise to the level of anaphylaxis.

Dining out has and will always present challenges for the food allergic, and living in a bubble isn’t a realistic option: I don’t know one adult with food allergies that doesn’t dine out at restaurants or eat foods prepared by others. Right now, the food allergy community relies on the word of the kitchen and waitstaff—the first and only line of defense to prevent a reaction; then there’s epinephrine if things go wrong. Little progress has been made in the way of management tools for preventing allergic reactions in past decades, but fortunately, that’s starting to change. We’re finally seeing a surge of start-up activity in the food allergy space, with different products and apps designed to help the food allergic population better manage their allergies. After all, dining out shouldn’t feel like a game of Russian roulette!

Consumer devices that test foods for unwanted ingredients are intended as a supplement, not a substitute, to the standard precautionary measures those with food allergies would otherwise take when dining out or eating foods prepared by others. For example, I’m still going to tell the waitstaff I have food allergies; I’m still going to take a small bite before diving into my dish; I’m still going to avoid Thai restaurants, desserts, and pesto; and I’ll continue to have my epinephrine on hand. But an additional layer of assurance would be a vast improvement on the status quo.

Having been on both sides of the table, I know this much is true: waitstaff make mistakes, and it only takes one to trigger anaphylaxis. We food allergic folks need all the tools and reassurances we can get.

- Abi and the Allergy Amulet Team

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Navigating Food Allergies as a Foreigner the SMART Way

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I was born with numerous food allergies. Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s with life-threatening food allergies was incredibly rare, as were the means to managing them. On several occasions, I had to rely on self-induced vomiting for a remedy (epinephrine auto-injectors wouldn’t come onto the market until my early twenties). Thankfully, I grew out of most of my allergies by the time I was a teen, although I remain severely allergic to peanuts, pistachios, and other legumes to varying degrees. After a couple decades managing my allergies, I’d grown pretty adept at navigating the food-allergic life. Then I moved to Southeast Asia.

I flew to Singapore in January 1985, armed with zero knowledge of Southeast Asia or its food (this was well before Google would have informed me that Southeast Asian food includes lots of nuts and legumes). By that time, thankfully, I carried an EpiPen with me, although I had never actually used one.

My first years in Asia were a learning experience in many ways; some of the most “memorable” lessons came from managing my food allergies. To paraphrase Kelly Clarkson: what didn’t kill me made me (slightly) smarter.

For those food-allergic travellers out there, below are five tips that I hope will help you on your journeys.

1.  Study ahead of time

For my kick-off lunch in Asia, I went to a Chinese restaurant with the rest of my team and several clients. The first dish was a cold duck salad, which sounded safe enough. I confidently dug in my chopsticks and took a couple bites. Big mistake. I would soon learn that one of the main ingredients in the dish was chopped peanuts. I stopped eating and found my way back to my hotel. Three days later, after an EpiPen and several bouts of vomiting, I was finally able to get off my hotel room floor. Not a great way to start my Asian adventures.

If I had bothered to do some basic research on the culture’s signature dishes and ingredients ahead of time (and maybe even studied the language), I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. With all the information available on the web nowadays, restaurant research is relatively easy. Find an item on a menu that seems safe and double check with the waitstaff at the restaurant. A chef card translated into the country’s native language always comes in handy too!

2. Medications like epinephrine and antihistamines should always remain close at hand

I remember grabbing a drink one night at a hotel bar with a good friend. I finished my beer before he did (not an uncommon event!), and being the joker that I am, figured I would swap our beer glasses when he turned his head so I could get another swig of beer. Once my lips came into contact with the glass, I knew I was in trouble. He had been eating peanuts! I immediately ran upstairs to my hotel room. Thankfully, I had epinephrine on hand and was able to stave off a more severe reaction.

I now carry medicine with me at all times, in my briefcase, my other briefcase, and my carry-on. I cannot stress how important it is to keep emergency medications on your person. It has saved me on numerous occasions. Traffic can be horrendous in many Asian cities, and I have yet to find any pharmacy in the region that sells antihistamines, let alone an epinephrine auto-injector!

3. Ask questions

When I came to Asia, I was often afraid to ask about ingredients or request that a dish be prepared without certain ingredients. This led to several instances of unnecessary allergic reactions. In hindsight, I should have worried more about my throat (which closes when I eat peanuts) than saving face, which is a big concern in Asia. At times, of course, waiters or friends may not know what goes into specific dishes. In such cases, or anytime you are in doubt, don’t eat it!

There can also be language barriers to overcome. For many servers, English is not their first language. As such, I have found that I need to be very specific with my questions—instead of asking about legumes, I ask about peas, beans, bean sprouts, bean curd, and bean paste—use local terms as much as possible!

4. Remember the hidden ingredients

Over the years I’ve had several food experiences that resulted in urgent visits to the doctor and/or hospital due to anaphylactic reactions. Often, these visits were because I ate a seemingly safe dish that had a sauce or spread containing nuts or legumes.  

Once at a hawker centre, I ordered a seemingly safe plate of satay. Being much wiser after having spent a few years in the region, I avoided the peanut dipping sauce. Unfortunately, despite only eating the skewered meat, I experienced an allergic reaction. I later learned that the satay chef had used peanut oil to baste the meat, and while peanut oil is nowhere near as deadly for me as peanuts, I still had a reaction.

In another instance, I ordered a basic chicken sandwich only to discover after taking a bite that it contained a pesto sauce made with pistachios. I also remember eating Indian food and wondering why I kept getting sick afterward. Eventually, I found out that papadum (which is served with many meals) is often made with ground lentil or chickpea flour. Thai green curry can include green beans, and some chili crab is made with peanuts.

In sum, there’s more than meets the eye for many food items in Southeast Asia. Those “hidden” ingredients? They are often the most dangerous ones.

5. Tell others

When travelling, especially with a group, I often kept quiet about my allergies as I did not want to inconvenience others. This occasionally backfired when I ended up having a reaction. I soon realized that telling the people you know is essential when living with a food allergy—in the case of a severe reaction, they may need to assist in administering your medications.

Often, I’ve found that friends and family are more than willing to omit certain ingredients or make special arrangements to accommodate allergies. I have also found that many restaurants—and even some hawkers—are quite willing to accommodate my special requests such as noodles without bean sprouts or fried rice without peas.

In summary, when travelling abroad, remember that food is a major part of every culture and that you can enjoy it as long as you are SMART about it: Study ahead of time, keep Medication close at hand, Ask questions, Remember the hidden ingredients, and Tell others.

- Nels Friets

 

Nels is the Co-Founder & Vice Chairman of tryb Capital, a Singapore-based financial investment group that invests in emerging financial technology solutions. Nels is also an investor in Allergy Amulet with the Bulldog Innovation Group, a network of Yale alumni investors.

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