If you’ve ever mourned the loss of peanuts on planes, or have been ordered against sending your child to school with anything nut-related, you’ve noticed the expanding presence of food allergies in our culture. For the unafflicted, it’s easy to dismiss (or mock, if you’re Louis CK or Ricky Gervais). But if you’re one of the 15 million Americans with food allergies — with over 90% the result of milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish (aka the “Big 8”) — you know how bad it can be. Allergies range in severity, from a rash to anaphylactic shock, and you can develop sudden allergies to previously benign foods. And the number of sufferers continues to grow: the CDC reports that the number of kids with food allergies went up 18% from 1997 to 2007.
But what does that mean for you? All those kids who were diagnosed with allergies are growing up, and coming to your bar, bringing with them a special set of needs with potentially deadly consequences. And if you and your team screw up, you’ll have to deal with the guilt of accidentally poisoning someone — and the threat of a costly lawsuit.
The amount of food allergy-related lawsuits have increased so much that there’s now a cottage industry of lawyers who specialize in such cases. Just this year, a UK restaurateur was sent to jail on manslaughter charges. An allergic customer asked for his curry sans nuts, and the restaurant ignored the request. The man died. As similar case occurred in 1993. A man allergic to MSG walked into a Marie Callender’s and ordered vegetable soup. Unbeknownst to the server who took his order, the soup ended up containing MSG; the man suffered brain damage and sued. The ruling established a precedent that restaurants should offer warnings if a dish “contains an ingredient to which a substantial number of the population are allergic,” especially if that dish “is one which the consumer would reasonably not expect to find in the product.”
Allergies have been a problem in the restaurant industry for years. There’s now even a ServSafe course specifically about allergens and the dangers of cross contamination (“Studies indicate that half the fatal episodes from food allergens occur outside the home,” its website warns ominously. “Are you prepared?”). But the bar industry doesn’t have any such program, nor a history of high-profile cases to serve as a warning. And while bars have less potential allergens than restaurants, a look around the average bar reveals plenty of minefields: Premade mixers? Might contain milk or powdered milk. Your innocent looking bottle of orgeat? Deadly to those with nut allergies. And any drink with lemon or a twist of orange, or made on a cutting board that you’ve just sliced a lemon on? Dangerous to those with a citrus allergy.
So what should you do? Yes, customers have a responsibility to tell you about their severe allergies. However, it’s easy to take a few simple steps to avoid causing a reaction. The chain Be At One, with more than 30 cocktail bars across England, came up with one solution after noting the rise in customers with food allergies. On their website, they offer a chart noting the allergens — from egg to sulfites — contained in their 100-plus cocktails. Each location also offers a hard copy of the chart.
“I think it is essential that bartenders consider allergens when developing cocktails and have this information for guests,” Andrew Stones, Be At One’s Operations Director, says. “We train our bartenders and give them separate equipment for any cocktails that may contain nuts to eliminate the risk of cross contamination. If guests do have allergies they should inform a bartender, but then the bartender should have the knowledge to assist them.”
It’s an easy way for bars to do their part, he adds. “We have been able to get allergen information from all of our suppliers, so whilst it was initially a daunting task to compile the list, it has actually been easier than anticipated and very easy to maintain as we develop new drinks.”
Even if your chart isn’t as elaborate, taking the time to put together a laminated list of everything in your bar that contains the Big 8 goes a long way to both educate bar staff and make your guests feel more comfortable.
Allergies are especially an issue in tiki bars, says Michael Thanos, of Alameda’s Forbidden Island. Many tiki drinks feature nuts, but it’s more than that: “Tiki menus are intentionally vague. It’s been this way since the first Beachcomber menu and it’s stayed that way,” he says. “It’s not like craft bars where they’ll list every single ingredient, spray and drop that’s in there. A lot of the time you won’t know exactly the ingredients in there unless you ask.” Thanos has his bartenders ask customers upfront if they have allergies, and when they take drink orders that contain potentially-triggering ingredients not listed on the menu, they’ll mention it to customers.
The Forbidden Island menus also contain a disclaimer that all drinks may contain nuts, and to notify servers of any allergies. It’s a simple addition that can help protect your bar from being liable in potential lawsuits.
When it comes down to it, many of the techniques for dealing with customers with allergies are the same as dealing with any other customer. Talk to them, and listen to their concerns. Know your product. Follow proper cleanliness standards. Above all, be respectful of your customers and their needs, even if it means a little extra work.
“What we do is hospitality, it’s customer service,” says Thanos. “We want to ensure the customer’s happy, the product they’ve received and paid for is something they’re going to enjoy and not make them sick.”