Your Guest Just Told You They Have Food Allergies … Now What?

Imagine the scenario … there you are working a busy shift and your guest has just told you they are allergic to a food or they’ve handed you a Chef Card with the list of their food allergies. What do you do now? … for real?

First, take it seriously! Allergies can be a life or death matter. Whoever is serving the guest has to be able to answer any questions regarding the ingredients in the dish. Just as the cooks have to learn the ingredients to be able to know how to cook the dish, the front-of-the-house (alll servers and management) have to learn and know the ingredients to be able to sell the guest and that means answering questions regarding food allergies. If they don’t know, they have to find the person who does know.
If you are not sure if a food item contains the allergen noted by the guest, be honest! Be able to recommend a substitute, for example, a baked potato versus french fries cooked in peanut oil. I remember as a server having to take multiple quizzes to prove we knew all the ingredients in a dish before being allowed to graduate to serving the guests. A good manager/owner should designate a “go-to-person” for each shift who is capable in answering all ingredient questions.

After the server has answered the questions regarding the menu and taken the order, their next responsibility is to inform management and the head chef that this guest has allergies. Management should monitor the flow of preparation of this menu item.

If someone says they are allergic to shellfish, it’s not enough to not just serve them shellfish. A major concern here would be cross contact not just cross contamination. Cross contamination is the transfer of pathogens from one surface or food to another … generally cooking the contaminated food or cleaning and sanitizing that food or surface properly will eliminate the contamination. Cross contact is when one food touches another food and allows their proteins to mix. Cooking will not remove the food residue/protein. Cross contact can occur as easily as cooking seafood or shrimp in the same oil to fry french fries. The seafood residue is now in the oil and is touching the french fries and cannot be cooked out as it is food residue that touches the french fries and will cause an allergic reaction for the guest even though they don’t order seafood. We have a client who had this happen to a guest who was allergic to shellfish. The waiter did not inform the executive chef nor the manager in charge. The problem was that the executive chef had just touched raw clams before touching this guest’s plate to serve her food without washing his hands first. This cross contact did make the guest go into anaphylaxis and the ambulance did have to be called. Yes, thankfully, the guest survived.

Yes, it is the guest’s duty to inform the establishment if they have allergies. Some of our clients are going so far as posting wording on their menu to remind them of that responsibility: “Before dining with us, please inform your server if a person in your food party has a food allergy.”


  • When preparing the guest’s dish, clean and sanitize a surface or change out any equipment that might have touched the allergen to avoid cross contact.
  • Consider purchasing a double fryer. This allows you to fry seafood in one fryer and other items in the other to avoid cross contact.
  • Wash your hands to avoid cross contact.
  • Consider using color coded equipment.
  • Train your staff to understand what allergies are and that the ingredients that cause 90 percent of allergic reactions are dairy products, eggs, wheat, soy, seafood, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts.
  • Develop written procedures and instructions for your staff on how to react if someone has an allergy.
  • Check all food ingredient labels of foods received in your building to see if they contain an allergen, i.e. eggs in mayonnaise.

What do you do if someone is having an allergic reaction in your establishment?

  • Call 911
  • Keep the guest calm and comfortable.
  • If the guest is having anaphylaxis, don’t make the guest stand up. This can be fatal.

Liability-wise, if someone informs you they are allergic, your establishment can be sued for punitive damages if “reckless disregard for the customer’s safety” can be proven.

About the Author

Juliet Bodinetz is executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training Solutions and has over 30 years industry and training experience. She and her team of instructors specialize in food safety, alcohol training and ServSafe training in English or in Spanish and writing HACCP Plans in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. area., or 443-838-7561. For latest food safety tips: Become a fan on Facebook or Twitter: @BHTS

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