Thursday, November 4, 2010

Can a Restaurant be Too Restrictive?

Saturday night my husband and I were in Princeton, NJ, with our food-allergic son. I had heard some good things about the way PF Chang’s handles food allergies, so we decided to try it.

There was a crowd, and we were told it was a one and a half-hour wait. Before making the decision to wait, I asked whether they would be able to handle allergies to wheat, milk, soy, eggs, and peanuts. The receptionist was very happy to tell me, “Yes! When you sit down, let your waiter know, and they’ll print out a list of what he can eat.”

Great! I was curious to see how it worked. My son was optimistic that he would be treated well.

Two hours later we sat down. I asked about the gluten-free options on the back of the menu, thinking that was a good place to start. “Yes, there’s a difference between the regular lettuce-wrapped chicken and the gluten-free lettuce-wrapped chicken,” I was told, “the gluten-free version uses a soy-based sauce.” Come to find out that pretty much every option on the GF menu substituted soy for wheat. Now, I’m not a big fan of soy, and in addition to my son’s allergies, I have had problems with it in the past, so we asked for the special list.

A few minutes later, the restaurant manager came by with a printout of things my son could eat. It went like this:

Chicken items available for you:
We’re sorry, there are no items for you in this category

Seafood items available for you:
We’re sorry, there are no items for you in this category

Meat items available for you:
We’re sorry, there are no items for you in this category

… and it went on like this for three pages.

In fact, the only items my son could eat were rice and a vegetable soup. That was it.

Needless to say, we were more than a little annoyed. The manager couldn’t have looked at the printout before he gave it to us, could he?

When our waiter returned, he explained that pretty much everything on the menu has hydrolyzed egg protein in it, and most items have soy. There was some good news. Our fabulous waiter worked with us and the kitchen. He managed to convince the chef to make a steak with no sauce. With steamed veggies and rice, my son was set.

What I learned is that PF Chang’s doesn’t accommodate, they restrict. They take an approach that says – if the way we make it you can’t eat it, then pick something else. In fact, what we need for them and all eating establishments to do is to accommodate – if the way they usually make it doesn’t work, then they should adapt their recipes and make something the food-allergic can eat.

What do you think? Can a restaurant be too restrictive?


Tali212 said...

I just find it nerve wracking to eat in restaurants. We went to Outback in Long Island and after being very specific that his entree be allergy free, they bough him broccoli drenched in butter. Fortunately I tasted it before I gave it to him. Waiter said 'well you didn't say anything about the broccoli'.

Allergy Mum said...

How very frustrating. We go to very few restaurants because most can’t/won’t work with MFA. I think you hit the nail on the head “doesn’t accommodate, they restrict”
Allergy Mum -

Colette said...

Tali212 -- it really is too bad that it's so nerve-wracking. And yes, what a particular waiter knows or doesn't know makes a big difference.

Allergy Mum -- true -- multiple allergies makes it that much harder.

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Sarah said...

I have an all-encompassing nut allergy, and when my boyfriend first took me to a Thai restaurant I was more than a little nervous. He helped me navigate the menu and find something to eat that was nut-free and it was delicious! I'm in love with Thai food now...I found this great local Thai place in Georgia where I go to college called PJ's that can remove/substitute any ingredient to accommodate customer's needs. Usually restaurants I go to are understanding and do their best to accommodate...even so, every once in a blue moon I slip up and some nut sneaks past my radar. Eating out can be a hassle.