Three Ways Restaurant Staff and Customers Communicate to Prevent Food Allergic Reactions

by Timothy Wingate, Joshua Bourdage, Malika Khakhar, Samantha Jones, The Conversation

One effective approach to allergy communication is for waiters to ask customers about food allergies. Credit: Shutterstock

Public health researchers have called food allergies a “growing public health epidemic in Canada” affecting about one in 13 Canadians and one in five Canadian households. Dining out can be risky and stressful for people with allergies, 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 afterward. In recent years, media across Canada have reported several cases of people suffering from extreme, sometimes fatal, allergic reactions to restaurant food. Such accidents are most often due to poor communication.

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

Based on this research, we offer some guidelines for reducing the risk of allergic reactions in restaurants and improving the customer experience.

Allergic communication

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

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

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

For each incident, staff reported on who was involved, what went well, what went wrong and how. Based on these, we mapped the allergy communication process from customer to server to kitchen staff and back again, and identified where errors commonly occur, as shown in this diagram.

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

As you can see, communication in restaurants works like a phone game, where messages get from customers to waiters to kitchen staff. Just like on the phone, mistakes can happen at any time, and with enough time mistakes are inevitable. Unlike the telephone, however, errors can be anticipated, avoided or corrected.

3 Ways Restaurant Staff and Customers Can Communicate to Prevent Food Allergic Reactions

The process of communicating allergy from customer to server to kitchen staff and back, showing where mistakes commonly occur. Credit: International review of hotel management, DOI: 10.1016 / j.ijhm.2021.102959, courtesy Elsevier

Recommendation # 1: Learn About Allergies

Most communication problems arise when clients forget or are too shy to disclose their allergy. We suggest waiters ask customers to disclose their allergies when they present themselves: “Hello, my name is Sam and I will be your waiter. First of all, does anyone at the table have any food allergies? ? “

To be clear, we are not suggesting that disclosure of allergies is the responsibility of the server. Quite the contrary: most of the people questioned (staff and customers alike) agree that the disclosure of allergies is above all the responsibility of the customer.

We suggest that waiters ask customers about allergies just because it is the most effective approach. A typical waiter processes many more food orders than a typical customer. So not only may staff be better able to develop the habit of initiating conversations about food allergies, but trained waiters 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 staff we interviewed, customers shouldn’t just report their allergy; they should also describe the severity of the allergy.

Recommendation 2: Double-check

Staff and customers can incorporate double checks to detect and reverse communication problems before they lead to disaster. Double checking consists of repeating the information to the speaker and asking for confirmation. For example, when a customer discloses an allergy, the server may 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 double checks at all of these points. However, each additional double check could improve your chances of catching an error and saving a life.

Recommendation n ° 3: Involve fewer staff

Again, the allergy communication process works much like a phone game, and the phone is easier with fewer people playing. Likewise, it can be helpful to reduce the number of people who have to deliver 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 counterfeiters

Allergy sufferers and staff have raised the issue of allergy “spoofers”, people who claim to have a food allergy which is really just a preference. These forgers aren’t just annoying. They blur the lines of communication about allergies, making it harder for customers and staff to trust each other. This is all the more 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, staff, and customer is different, so these recommendations are a suggested starting point. We’ve kept our recommendations simple so they’re easy to adopt or adapt.

Good habits can reduce allergic reactions, improve the customer experience, and build staff confidence in managing allergies. Additionally, people with allergies can be loyal customers of restaurants they consider safe.

Suboptimal knowledge and attitudes about food allergies among restaurant staff

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