#14Allergens – new law, who’s getting it right? Reply

It’s almost a month since the new allergen law came in. At the start there was a flurry of press coverage about what this would mean for allergy sufferers. Our very first experience was a very positive one – at Winter Wonderland – followed by a ‘medium to good’ one at Zizzi’s.

Since then I’ve been reading lots of posts in various Facebook groups and through other social media of some very unsatisfactory experiences. Many of the chains are being named and shamed. Some are being praised – but people usually talk more about their bad experiences, so the picture is somewhat skewed. The main problem seems to be staff training and attitude – and it varies wildly from location to location. Much effort seems to being put into compliance with the law with regard to menu and labelling but the staff are just not getting it right and reputations are being affected.

Wagamama, Harvester, TGI Fridays and Pizza Express are four chains that I see getting the most praise. Their information is reported as ‘good’, their menus well thought out, the staff are helpful and friendly, and their practises ‘seem’ to be sound – as I have not read of ‘accidental’ incidents. The result is that these brands are starting to be seen as leaders and often recommended within groups.

Ask, Zizzi and Carluccios have a mixed bag of reviews. A lot of this is because they don’t have much variety on their menus, the ‘throwing’ flour is still an issue for GF people, but the biggest problem is the attitudes and competence of waiting staff. Many have reported incidents when they have asked to see the allergy menus, ordered from them, and staff have still delivered the wrong foods.

Yesterday I read that a lady in a ‘Frankie & Benny’s’ asked to see the allergy menu and was told by the waiting staff that she had to provide a card listing her allergies, that they would present to the kitchen first! Wrong on so many counts.

So I thought I would share my observations too – in the hope that it might provoke some more responses from you and help build a truer picture of how well this law is being implemented.

After Christmas, we went to stay with my parents in Dorset and visited a pub that serves good food. The menu has always clearly stated the usual symbols – vegetarian, contains nuts, GF – but little else. We visited just before the regs came out and for the first time I saw NGCI on a menu – no gluten containing ingredients. So I was impressed – they were ahead of the game. I noticed that they also served a selection of specifically NGCI meals and was able to order Zac a burger and chips.

There was even a real ‘pudding’ – a NGCI Belgian Waffle, served with ice cream and berries. The waffle wasn’t dairy free so Zac couldn’t have it but I thought my GF friends might be impressed as the usual offering is just fruit. Zac wasn’t disappointed about the pudding. He is used to bringing his own and he was very full anyway from the absolutely delicious 100% beef burger, served in a very good quality gluten free roll.

The pub was The New Queen. It is a chain pub owned by Hall & Woodhouse. It is always popular with families, has a nice children’s menu and friendly atmosphere, and now that there were some ‘fun’ and safe options on the menu for Zac it was our first choice for our New Year celebration lunch.

The menus were exactly the same as before, in terms of listing and items featured, so I asked if I could see the ‘new’ Allergen Menu – and I explained why. Moments later I was presented with an enormous and very comprehensive folder that looked 100% compliant with the new law. This information is available on their website and well worth a look. It even explained that they have 3 separate fryers and listed which foods are cooked together and which are kept separate. Fantastic.

Hall & Woodhouse 'Allergen Info'

Hall & Woodhouse ‘Allergen Info’

So again we ordered Zac a gluten free burger and fries – a rare treat. My ‘non allergic’ daughter and nephew were also with us and they ordered cheeseburgers. Sadly when the food came all three children were presented with cheeseburgers. Zac looked puzzled as soon as his was put in front of him. He is not used to his food ‘looking’ exactly the same as the others and was very confused by the cheese oozing out.

We told our waiter, he wasn’t particularly apologetic and frankly looked a bit cross but quickly took it away and after about ten minutes the ‘correct’ one came out – and that is when we were thankful that they had put cheese on the first one. Here’s why – this time Zac’s burger roll was smaller and square. The first one had been large and round. My Mum spotted it first. She said “I’m sure that the roll he was given last time was not a gluten free one – it looked like Sophia’s”. Just to double check I looked at a photo I had taken of Zac the first time we had eaten there and sure enough the roll that time was square too.

A square gluten free roll

A square gluten free roll

Zac enjoying his lunch

So, if it hadn’t been for their first mistake of putting cheese on his food, I might not have noticed the roll was wrong. When you ask for gluten free burger with gluten free roll and NGCI is all over the menu and the allergy listings are so comprehensive – you assume you are safe. Never again. Had they not accidentally put cheese on Zac’s food and caused us to send it back he would have eaten that bread and been quite poorly.

I am now in two minds as to whether I can really recommend this pub – all is in place to ensure you are safe but if the staff training is not done properly it is all for nothing and reputations and repeat business will be severely affected by these basic and dangerous errors. Putting cheese on a burger that you said must be dairy free, and bringing out a ‘normal’ bread roll when you asked for NGCI is very poor. It is so rare to feel safe and assured and we really had that feeling at the start of the experience but once those mistakes became apparent all trust was gone. Hall and Woodhouse – I give you 10 out of 10 for commitment in terms of information and menu development – but your staff at The New Queen let you down. Please try harder.

And to all other food outlets – a word of warning. When you appear to be compliant, allergy customers do feel comfortable and trust you. Don’t let us down. When we ask for our ‘special’ food and you say you can accommodate us, we believe you. As a result of our experience at New Year, I am now thinking that people at risk of life threatening reactions need to be ever more careful – and can never truly rest easy.

What if Zac had severe wheat allergies? What if he had taken a bite of that bread roll? It could happen. I so dread the day that I read someone has died as an indirect result of these new laws. We want to believe that a restaurant claiming and appearing to be fully compliant is a safe haven. A hungry sufferer could excitedly tuck into a meal that they had been reassured was safe, yet because of a mix up between the waiting staff and kitchen was handed ‘death on a plate’…So remember everyone, check, check and check again. Restaurant managers – train, train and train your staff. Lives do depend on it.

I want to finish on a high note as there are plenty of places not just getting it right but positively embracing it. This week I was back in London for work, and as I walked out of my office at lunchtime I spotted a new and very busy ‘eating place’ – Leon. It was nestled in between many other food chains and was the busiest by far – with big signs offering ‘naturally’ fast food. The buzz around the place is possibly because it’s new and possibly because it’s the New Year and many non allergy folks are trying ‘clean’ eating for the first time in a bid to shift some Christmas weight.

As I made my short walk from the station to the office I was amazed at how many boards were outside the food shops advertising gluten free foods and/or ‘clean’ foods, e.g. quinoa lunch pots, fresh soup, rice noodles etc. Starbucks was the least busy and I suspect that was because they have a lot less non-sandwich and non-cake foods to offer than neighbouring Itsu, Eat, Pret or Abokado.

So how come Leon was packed? I couldn’t get in the door so resolved to try it next time. Instead I took a look at their website to see what was so good.

No wonder it was so busy. The food all looks and sounds delicious and the ‘coding’ was terrific, e.g. Nuts, DF, GF, WF, EF etc etc

They even have a kids menu. It looks very appealing and offers several safe options for a dairy free, gluten free child.

Does this mean that for the first time ever, I can take my boy into London for a day out and leave the lunchbox behind? Not only do they have ‘mains’ that are dairy free too, but they have snacks and even a biscuit! I never thought I would see the day. Now if I could only get him to try new foods we would be in a very happy place…

Good eating everyone and do take care. x



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