Food Allergy Counseling

Food Allergy Counseling
Sloane Miller, Food Allergy Counselor (Picture © Noel Malcolm 2013)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Keg, York Street, Toronto


You're like a celebrity! my Canadian food allergy coaching client said, bowled over.

I was in Toronto recently for the Jazz Festival and to dine out with my Canadian food allergy coaching client. My client, a young professional woman, is native to Toronto and anaphylactic to peanuts and some tree nuts. As part of her coaching, we made a plan to try a new restaurant together. (We had dined together once before when she was in New York City for work – we had a great and safe time at The Strand.) During part of our sessions leading up to my trip, we did research on possible allergen-aware restaurants. (I wrote about how I started the research here). The Keg came up multiple times in our searches, especially on Allergic Living magazine’s free forum, an excellent tool that covers North America and beyond. We made a reservation at The Keg to practice dining out, using the new skills we explored in our coaching sessions.

We entered as virtual strangers to The Keg staff except for a few pleasant calls and emails about food allergic needs; and we were both still unsure if our health needs were going to be fully understood and met. After two hours, one mistake and a dinner do-over, we left, having eaten well and food allergy free. We also laughed and received waves and hugs from multiple staff members as we had made new food allergy allies and friends all throughout the restaurant!

How did we do that?  

We used the tools that I use every time I dine anywhere.  Those tools are fully explored in my book Allergic Girl (on this blog, natch), during one-on-one coaching sessions and will be in webinars coming soon. But instead of going through those tools again, I’d thought I’d focus on one of the defining moments of this evening – the mistake.  

First, some tools I always have in play whether dining solo with food allergies or when dining with a food allergy coaching client:

THE APPROACH:
My client kept saying to me, How do you do that? They love you but you’re really clear about your food allergy needs, too. I use some essential, often overlooked-as-too-basic interpersonal skills when approaching a restaurant. I always have them on hand, and they are totally free! The approach:

-Use your pleases and thank yous
-Flash a warm and genuine smile whenever you can – it really makes a difference
-Exchange names with the restaurant team (e.g. Hi, I’m Sloane. What’s your name? Nice  to meet you. Thank you in advance for ensuring our meal is food allergy safe)
-Connect with the restaurant team members as people first (e.g. a genuine compliment or finding common ground works well)

THE LIST:
We called the local Keg outpost down the street from my hotel (there are 88 locations Canada-wide). We spoke with the manager and then emailed them a follow up with the specifics so everyone was on the same page. This email would turn out to be a turning point for the restaurant and how they understood our needs. The email included my list, pre-written, on letterhead, of my cannot haves as well as can haves as well as my client's list. I recommend that my clients create a list of their own - written clearly, concisely and ready to send out to restaurants, chefs, hotel groups, caterers, etc.. The Keg's management wrote back that they had our lists and would be all ready for us.

THE PLAN:
The basics of my food allergy  plan that I use for myself and recommend to my coaching clients:

-Always carry emergency medication on your person at all times
-Know when and how to use them i.e. your emergency action plans as well as emergency phones numbers on hand
-Communicate needs firmly, clearly and politely to a restaurant before arrival
-Repeat needs when onsite and assess the risk in situ
-If at any point, you don’t feel safe, don’t risk it

***

THE MEAL & THE  MISTAKE:
Manager Eric met us at the host's station of The Keg York Street, greeted us warmly, and said the kitchen was all prepared for us. He joined us at our table to go over their preparations and our potential order. Here's when my email came back into the conversation. Eric said they had gone through their menu and picked out which dishes seemed best for our needs, given my email. He was holding a copy of the printout in his hand for the entire evening. His suggestions were exactly what I had listed in my "can eat" section of my food allergy list: a clean protein with just salt and pepper and olive oil, baked potato and steamed or sautéed greens if we liked. We thought that sounded great and ordered one large steak to share with two plain baked potatoes. We repeated our allergies, even though he was holding the email in his hand, as it is always our responsibility not the restaurant's to have special requests and needs memorized. We also repeated our order: one steak with baked potato; no sauce, no rub, just plain.

The steak came out looking luscious. And underneath the steak was a bed of steaming button mushrooms. We hadn't ordered mushrooms. Neither of us are allergic to mushrooms but why did something that we didn't order show up on our lovely allergen-free plate? I called the manager over and I asked him what happened.
 
"We always serve steak with mushrooms and as it wasn't on your allergen list, so we thought it would be okay.” He backtracked and admitted it was an error, an oversight – they always plate the dish that way and since it wasn’t on the list they thought it would be alright but hadn’t said anything to us, their guests.

“Would you like me to redo the order?”  

“Yes, please. That would be great.”

"I totally get it,” he added. “You’re wondering, if we serve you something that we didn't discuss, what else we didn't hear or listen to. But it was my error for not communicating the mushrooms to you, I just assumed. We will get this right. It was our mistake." He whisked the steak away and the chef remade the dish, with a new steak. Our server, Derrick, came over too, and also apologized for their oversight.

THE MEAL:
It had been over an hour since we first sat down and finally the steak arrived. It was delicious and allergen-friendly perfection. And no mushrooms! Our server, Derrick, and the manager, Eric, came by again to check in on us, and apologized again. Everyone was all smiles and laughs, including me and my client.

POSTSCRIPT:
During this meal, what I didn’t describe was how multiple servers (not even our own) came over to talk to our table: about food allergies, about visiting New York City, about Danny Meyer and dining out in New York City, about Toronto and even just the weather. They were a friendly restaurant team; in truth, I found all of Toronto very friendly. Even though we could have been deemed a “difficult” table, the overall atmosphere that my client and I created was one of fun and enjoyment, plus food allergy requests that need to be, and were, taken seriously. This was why when we left, it seemed like the whole restaurant bid us adieu. Like celebrities.

You can create this kind of experience for your self or your family or bring a potentially worrisome experience back from an emotionally precarious brink. (The mushrooms were perfectly safe, we just didn’t order them nor want them.) Consider an experienced coach to partner with you or your family about dining out with confidence and contact me at Allergicgirl.com.

A heartfelt thank you to The Keg team members, especially Eric and Derrick for keeping us safe with a smile.

165 York Street
Toronto, Ontario
M5H 3R8
Canada
(416) 703-1773

No comments: