Monday, June 8, 2015

Rant: Restaurant Reviews Ignoring Deadly Service?

There's an aspect of restaurant service with the potential to kill millions of people. Despite its importance, almost no restaurant review addresses this issue. Why not? Shouldn't a review discuss such a vital element? How can we better protect those millions of people who are at risk?

Recently on Facebook, Jacqueline Church raised an intriguing question: "Can/should a restaurant be "top" if they get a potentially life-threatening thing like food allergen handling wrong AND dismiss it cavalierly?" Jacqueline has food allergies, along with about 15 million people, so this is a matter absolutely vital to her health. She has written numerous articles about food allergies, and also trains restaurants in allergy awareness and handling. Her question made me ponder the issue, and realize my own restaurant reviews fail to address this issue.

It is rare to see any restaurant review which addresses whether a restaurant properly handles food allergies or not. About the only time that happens is when the reviewer has food allergies so is particularly aware of that issue. How a restaurant handles allergy issues is an important aspect of service, yet it is part of service that has largely been ignored so far by most restaurant reviewers. To answer Jacqueline;'s question, I don't believe a restaurant can be considered one of the "top" or "best" if it screws up allergy handling.

If that is the case, then we need to consider whether restaurant reviews should routinely address this issue or not. First, numerous restaurant reviews have length limitations so it can be a challenge to include absolutely every relevant issue. Is this an issue so important that it should be included? Second, how many reviewers properly understand the issue of allergies and can accurately assess the situation at a restaurant? I'm willing to bet that many reviewers fail to grasp the complete situation and could use some education in this regard. Third, if most restaurant reviews ignore the issue of food allergies, where can people go for that information?

Though it would be beneficial for most restaurant reviews to address this issue, maybe a matter of such vital importance, a potential life threatening matter, would be better served by a different forum. Would you want to rely upon a single line in a published restaurant review mentioning that the restaurant handles allergies well? Or would you prefer a more detailed explanation of how the restaurant addressed food allergies? I think the latter would be far more useful.

Maybe a better solution would be to have a website dedicated to reviews of how restaurants handle food allergies. It would be better to have knowledgeable individuals discuss the specifics, to provide the necessary details for those at risk. There have been a few articles, published over the last few years, providing lists of restaurants which best handle food allergies, but I'm unaware of any central website that reviews Boston area restaurants about these matters. It would be great to see more articles in the future too, but there is still a need for such a central website.

Your thoughts?


Jacqueline Church said...

There is a site called Allergy Eats. I've seldom used it myself because the interface often lacks the restaurant I'm dining at. I will say that it's undergoing an overhaul now. I hope it will include a better search and user interface in the next iteration. It doesn't have to be the center of a review but certainly serving me something that could kill me is at least as important as serving someone a glass of wine that's a different year than the bottle ordered?

I always reach out to the restaurant before hand, I dine at less busy times (hello Tuesday at 530), I bring my chef card. These are all tips I outlined in my Washington Post article. I would rather have a restaurant say "sorry we just aren't comfortable serving you safely" than "yes" and get it wrong.

I'm continually disappointed when the response to my fair, detailed follow up (what went right and what went wrong) and an offer of training (short money, fits into premeal staff meeting) is "we're all set" -- not even a "sorry we made you sick, we'll look into this."

They just don't care is my only conclusion. Very good - otherwise - restaurants you would be surprised. Imagine if you found a shard of glass in your dinner? Would you expect the restaurant to dismiss it as "we're all good"?

As Ming Tsai says, people don't eat out alone as often as they go with a group, what restaurant wants to turn away business or make guests sick? or worse?

Dining is a social activity. Most people go into hospitality to make people happy not sick. There's a huge disconnect in this one arena and the bad news is allergies and intolerances are on the rise.

Let's take the "hospital" out of "hospitality" and treat all diners with respect.

susan Holaday said...

Really excellent post, Richard! Jacqueline did a guest column for, my industry publication that is 90 years old this year. I agree that this is an issue that must not be treated dismissively by restaurants. The number of gluten allergy cases keeps rising in this country and those who push it aside thinking being gluten-free is merely a 'trend' are making a big mistake. If one customer eats something he is that sensitive to in your restaurant and goes into anaphylactic shock you are in serious trouble. Everyone, like you, who raise awareness, should be applauded!