3 ways restaurant staff and customers can communicate with pre…

(MENAFN- The Conversation) Public health researchers have called food allergies a “growing public health epidemic in Canada” affecting approximately one in 13 Canadians and one in five Canadian households. Restaurant meals can be risky and stressful for allergy sufferers, in part because many restaurant workers lack the training, skills and confidence to manage food allergies safely and effectively.

These are challenges that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic and will surely persist after. In recent years, news outlets across Canada have reported several cases of people suffering extreme, sometimes fatal, allergic reactions to restaurant foods. Such accidents are most often due to miscommunication.

As researchers in the field of industrial and organizational psychology, we have analyzed how and why food allergy information is communicated, and miscommunicated, in restaurants. We approached allergy communication the same way we might approach communication within a flight crew or surgical team: by isolating the critical behaviors in the communication process.

Based on this research, we offer some guidelines to reduce the risk of allergic reactions in restaurants and improve the customer experience.

Communication on allergies

Miscommunication between servers and kitchen staff can lead to allergy incidents. (Shutterstock)

Allergy information can be communicated in written and verbal form. Written communication takes place on a restaurant’s website, signs in dining rooms, menus and ingredient lists. It also happens among staff, such as on order forms and point-of-sale (POS) machines.

Yet most food orders involve verbal conversations between customers and servers. During these conversations, customers and servers get to know each other and decide together how best to handle the customer’s food order.

We have collected examples, or critical incidents, of restaurant staff handling a food order for an allergic customer. We received 107 successful incidents and 61 failed incidents from various restaurants. Missed incidents involved things like an allergic reaction, staff having to redo a meal, and/or an upset customer.

For each incident, staff shared who was involved, what went right, what went wrong, and how. Based on this, we mapped the allergy communication process, from customer to server to kitchen staff and back, and identified where mistakes frequently occur, as shown in this diagram.

The allergy communication process, from customer to server to kitchen staff and back, illustrating where mistakes frequently occur. Reprinted from International Journal of Hospitality Management, DOI: 10.1016/j.ijhm.2021.102959, with permission from Elsevier., Author provided

In addition to these incidents, we also asked 138 people with moderate to severe food allergies to describe their own restaurant encounters.

As you can see, communication in restaurants works like a phone game, where messages flow from customers to servers to kitchen staff. Like on the phone, mistakes can happen at any stage, and given enough time, mistakes are bound to happen. Unlike the telephone, however, errors can be anticipated, avoided or corrected.

Recommendation #1: Ask about allergies

Most miscommunications occur when customers forget or are too shy to disclose their allergy. We suggest that servers ask customers to disclose their allergies when they introduce themselves: “Hello, my name is Sam and I will be your server. First of all, is there anyone at the table who suffers from food allergies? »

To be clear, we are not suggesting that allergy disclosure is the server’s responsibility. Quite the contrary: most of the people we interviewed (staff and customers) agreed that allergy disclosure is primarily the responsibility of the customer.

We suggest servers ask customers about allergies simply because it’s the most effective approach. A typical server handles many more food orders than a typical customer. So not only may staff be better able to develop the habit of starting conversations about food allergies, but trained servers have the ability to lead the conversation.

In the same interaction, some customers mention their allergy but omit important information, such as the severity of the allergy. According to the staff we interviewed, customers should not simply declare their allergy; they should also describe the severity of the allergy.

Recommendation #2: Recheck

Staff and customers can incorporate double checks to detect and reverse miscommunications before they lead to disaster. Double checking involves repeating information back to the speaker and asking for confirmation. For example, when a customer reveals an allergy, the server can repeat the allergy and accommodation to the customer, and ask the customer to confirm that this information is correct. In the diagram above, we have highlighted four points where double checking is most useful.

Of course, it may not be realistic to include cross-checks at all of these points. Yet each additional double check could improve your chances of catching a mistake and saving a life.

Recommendation #3: Involve less staff

Again, the allergy communication process works a bit like a phone game, and the phone is easier with fewer people playing. In the same way, it can be useful to reduce the number of people who must transmit a message. Restaurants that do this well often appoint a staff member, manager, or chef to directly oversee orders from customers with allergies.

Nobody likes fakes

Allergic customers and staff have raised the issue of allergy “faking” — people who claim a food allergy that is really just a preference. These counterfeiters aren’t just annoying. They blur the lines of allergy communication, making it harder for customers and staff to trust each other. This is an additional reason why customers need to be clear about the severity of their allergy and for staff to treat all allergies seriously, even when in doubt.

Many restaurants already follow some or all of these recommendations, but many do not. Every restaurant, every staff member and every customer is different, so these recommendations are meant as a suggested starting point. We have simplified our recommendations so that they are easy to adopt or adapt.

Good habits can reduce allergic reactions, improve the customer experience and build staff confidence to manage allergies. In addition, allergy sufferers may be loyal customers of restaurants that they consider safe.

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