This Story is Why Restaurants Need to Take Allergy Requests Seriously

In Depth

It’s time to talk about why allergy requests are so damned important to honor as restaurant employees, and to illustrate just why that point is so crucial, we’re going to use a story from a Behind Closed Ovens submission to drive the point home. Consider this your early Cinco de Mayo* present.

Paying attention to a customer’s allergy requests and following through on the ones the kitchen is able to accommodate (it goes without saying that not all requests are going to be possible to handle, which is fine as long as that’s clearly communicated) seems a simple proposition, and it really should be. There is, however, an irritatingly pervasive belief among many restaurant employees that the majority of customers who claim to have allergies are faking it, pretending to have allergies so that the kitchen will be extra careful not to put a thing in their food that they simply don’t like.

First of all, why in the hell does it matter if they’re actually allergic to it or they just don’t like it? What difference does that even make? If a customer asks for a dish without one component and that’s something the restaurant is generally willing or able to accommodate, why does a customer’s reasoning for the request even matter? If they want their salad without onions because they tell you they’re allergic, can any server, cook, or bartender give me a valid reason accomplishing that isn’t part of the basic job description even if you’ve seen them unknowingly eat onions before? This applies to anything, really. Hell, if a customer orders a steak well done, they’re a terrible eater, steaks should never be well done, but they’re a terrible eater who should get exactly the terrible food they’ve requested.

Making fun of them for their atrophied taste buds is fine,** but they ordered their shitty overcooked steak, you told them shitty overcookedness was a viable goal, and that’s how it should arrive at the table, dammit. We can laugh at the stories where someone says they’re allergic to crunchy or allergic to the color red, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still the restaurant’s job to ensure their food is both crunchless and sans vermilion if they say they can do so; just because we laugh at those stories when they pop up in BCO doesn’t mean the server or cook should ignore the customer’s request purely out of spite. Sure, I was once suspended (and stiffed) for telling a customer that the tuna steak they ordered cooked through was ruining a perfectly good piece of fish (worth it, by the way), but you know what I also did? I made sure they got their ruined piece of fish cooked exactly how they wanted it.

More importantly, however, you do not want to screw around with allergy requests, even if you don’t think the customer actually has allergies. For an example of what happens when you don’t take them seriously, I give you a Behind Closed Ovens submission from Laura Letterman (not her real name) both important and unique enough that its entry into my mailbox spawned an entire post:

Laura Letterman:

I still to this day feel a certain sense of sickness when I remember this memory. I was a fucking idiot in college and so were my coworkers.
I worked in this burger joint near the university and we had this girl who always came in and ordered the same thing at least three times a week: cheeseburger, fries, and a coke. But every time she would remind us not to put tomatoes anywhere near her food. We always made fun of her because we thought being allergic to tomatoes is like saying you’re allergic to gluten: it’s an excuse to be a dick.
She would watch us like a fucking hawk to make sure we didn’t put any tomatoes even near her damn food. She even made us remake her burger if it so much as touched a place where a tomato could have been.
We would occasionally fuck with her by putting ketchup packets in her bag, just to see how she reacted. I don’t even remember why we were such big dicks to her, since she wasn’t a bad person…just fucking anal.
Then came the day when someone in the kitchen had enough with her being crazy, and slathered her burger with tomato juice before wrapping it up. I don’t even know why we thought it was a good idea, I think it was just a long night and we had been dealing with her being a tomato psycho for several months and just couldn’t take it anymore.
So we served her the burger and watched her sit down to eat. Nothing happened. She sat there and happily chowed down on her fucking cheeseburger. We all had a good laugh at her expense, because JFC, we had spent so long dealing with her bullshit food allergy.
And then ten minutes later the chick started convulsing. Apparently, tomato allergies are real and she was the tomato unicorn. The restaurant chalked it up to an accidental cross contamination, and she was fine, and thankfully we didn’t get our asses sued. After that, you better fucking believe we took every single allergy seriously, even if it sounded stupid.
So that kids is how I learned not to fuck with people’s food. I still can’t believe I almost fucking killed someone. Tomato girl, I am really sorry.

Now, to be fair, this story is somewhat of an outlier. While the overwhelming majority of restaurant employees I’ve known would never purposefully try to set off a customer’s allergies (this is the first story of its type I’ve ever received, too), carelessness and disregard for whether those allergies are “real” is another matter entirely. A surprising number of restaurant employees I’ve worked with default to believing that a customer is lying about whatever allergy they mention. A cook at one place I worked stubbornly insisted that people could only be allergic to “like seven things,” something he claimed he’d learned at culinary school. I would be in no way surprised if his stubborn refusal to accept or acknowledge reality led him to endanger at least one customer during the course of his career.

Actual occurrences like the one described above are minimal; even the vast majority of servers who grumble that people are faking allergies wouldn’t actually put their customers’ lives at risk. The obvious risk of killing someone if you’re wrong is way too great for any server with the common sense of a concussed duckling to ever take that chance. After all, it takes a special kind of reckless idiot to actually put a customer’s life at risk just because you’re angry at them for asking for gluten-free when they don’t have celiac disease.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about this and reiterate how important is this basic point: do not fuck around with allergies. Ever, for any reason. Yes, even if the customer was weird. Yes, even if the customer was an asshole. It really can’t be said enough: do not dick around with allergy requests. Don’t be the cook I worked with. He was a fucking moron, and his idiocy might one day kill somebody. You don’t want to be that guy, least of all because you don’t want to end up in prison.

* For the four or five different companies repeatedly e-mailing me trying to get me to write about tequila and do their PR work for them, this is the closest I’m going to come to writing a post about Cinco de Mayo. Stop contacting me, I hate you all.

** We are absolutely all making fun of you for this in the back, customers. No exceptions.

Image via Joshua Resnick/Shutterstock.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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