How dining out can be an allergy-friendly experience

Q&A with Paul Antico, CEO & Founder, AllergyEats

While dining out can be a stressful experience for individuals with food allergies, it can also be a quite positive one when all goes well. In this Q&A, Paul Antico, Founder & CEO of AllergyEats and a member of The National Peanut Board Food Allergy Education Advisory Council, shares his personal experience and insights, some history about what led him to create AllergyEats and tips for dining out with food allergies.

You are a father in a family of 7, with 3 food-allergic children. How does your family manage food allergies while dining out?

Fortunately, we’ve had a lot of experience to become comfortable – over 15 years. So, after using AllergyEats to help us find potentially allergy-friendly restaurants (wherever we are in the U.S.), we follow a series of steps. The most important step is to make sure we have our epinephrine. No epinephrine, no food. The second most important step is to disclose our allergies to the staff at the restaurant. These two steps are critical and should be followed by every food-allergic diner every time he or she eats out. After we disclose, we generally prefer to talk to a chef or manager. We should be able to ask the most basic questions – can we see the list of ingredients in a certain dish? – or even more challenging ones – what steps will you take to prevent cross-contact in the kitchen? – and get confident, insightful answers. Assuming we feel assured by the answers to our questions, we then discuss what our kids can eat, given their restrictions. Of course, if at any time we don’t feel confident in the staff’s knowledge or ability to keep our kids safe, we will leave the restaurant. Fortunately, that’s a very rare situation. Much more likely, we find staff extremely helpful, have a great experience, end up giving tremendous kudos to everyone who took care of us (letting them know we’ll share their efforts with the world on AllergyEats) and reward them with a generous tip.

What inspired you to create AllergyEats?

The inspiration to create AllergyEats came from my family’s frustrations over many years, finding too many restaurants that were unable or unwilling to accommodate us. This led to many situations where we might spend an hour or more just to find a suitable restaurant (let alone the time for the meal). Add to this the fact that our family likes to travel a lot, meaning we found ourselves in this same boat over and over again. One day, on an eventual two-hour, extremely frustrating journey to find a restaurant where I would be comfortable with two of my food-allergic kids, the concept of an allergy-friendly restaurant guide came to me. This was a niche that wasn’t being addressed anywhere on the internet. The idea never left my mind, so when I decided to leave my former job in the financial industry I immediately started pursuing this concept that eventually became AllergyEats.

What are some tips for those with food allergies to keep in mind when dining out?

The key is being prepared and knowing what to do. Below are some tips to help in creating happy restaurant experiences. A full list of tips can be found here.

  • Conduct advanced research. Use AllergyEats and other resources to determine which restaurants to visit and which to avoid. The restaurant search feature on the AllergyEats app and website provides peer-based ratings and feedback from the food allergy community about the “allergy-friendliness” of individual restaurants. Also, check restaurants’ websites and menus before visiting, and call ahead to discuss your specific needs.
  • Be prepared. Even the most conscientious and well-trained restaurants can make mistakes. There are no guarantees. Always carry two epinephrine auto-injectors, Benadryl or your other allergy medications. No exceptions.
  • Inform the staff about your food allergies and watch their reactions closely. At the restaurant, speak with the server, manager, and/or chef about your food allergies (whoever it takes to help make you feel comfortable dining there). When you speak with them, make eye contact and watch their facial expressions. Do they freeze? Do they have that deer-in-the-headlights look? Those are danger signs that the restaurant might not be allergy-friendly. We’ve found that the most accommodating restaurants are actually proud of their ability to serve food-allergic guests, with staff members often enthusiastic about explaining their food allergy policies and confident in answering your questions. If you get concerned looks, a lot of stammering, or answers that shatter your confidence, strongly consider leaving and finding another restaurant.
  • Double check your food. When you receive your meal, look carefully to see if any of your allergens are present (e.g., grated cheese, nuts, etc.). Unfortunately, some restaurants follow all of the “rules” to accommodate food allergies, and then make a simple but critical mistake like grating cheese on top of a dairy-allergic diner’s salad or garnishing a nut-allergic guest’s meal with a drizzle of pesto.

There has been a surge in the number of restaurants implementing training programs for their employees and taking the most important step to becoming allergy-friendly – making the commitment. The bottom line is that there are allergy-friendly restaurants all over the U.S. – independent and chain, small or large, fine dining or even some fast food. The key is to know who they are and where they are, which is where AllergyEats comes in. Just type in the location where you plan to dine and let AllergyEats share with you the allergy-friendliness ratings of restaurants in that area, as determined by the actual experiences of other food-allergic individuals.