Tucked in the technology enclave of San Jose, California, Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza’s three restaurants draw a hip, sophisticated and highly educated clientele. And with all of that education comes a high demand for not only healthy food, but also customer knowledge about food allergies and sensitivities, says Nancy Reineking, the company’s director of operations.
“We’re an upscale neighborhood: San Jose, Saratoga and (San Francisco’s) South Bay. We have a lot of educated families, so they are particular in what they want and how they want it,” Reineking says. The menu reflects that gourmet upscale clientele, featuring items like pancetta, Thai chicken, Italian sausage, artichoke hearts, homemade pesto and even different types of dough: California and Italian.
During her 17 years with the 21-year-old business, Reineking has “definitely noticed changes” in reports on food allergies, however. “People are becoming more particular and aware to gluten, wheat and dairy and peanuts and shellfish,” she says. In addition to specially ordered gluten-free dough for a tailored gluten-free menu, Willow Street also is careful to keep ingredients in separate containers and separate kitchen utensils so that there is no cross-contamination.
Food allergies are a problem for many diners. Pizza’s customization makes it easier for many to still enjoy their favorite foods, but like Willow Street, you have to be flexible as an operator. How should you deal with customers’ food allergies? What’s the responsibility of an operator to let customers know what’s in their food?
Are food allergies on the increase? Or is it simply better education on the part of both operators and consumers? Although it may appear food allergies are increasing, there is a lack of data, as well as a differing of perceptions of food allergies between the medical community and general population. This makes it difficult to scientifically document, says Manhattan nutritionist Robin Kaiden, who practices private nutrition counseling and is a consultant for medical specialists and fitness centers in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
The definition of a food allergy is a reaction where the immune system fights protein molecules in food, releasing histamines when (mistakenly) registering a food as being harmful, Kaiden says. It has been noted that four million children have food allergies/intolerances. And there has been an increased incidence: From 1997 to 2007, the number of children with food allergies rose from 3.3 percent to 3.9 percent, according to the CDC. The percentage of kids under 18 testing positive for antibodies, according to a CDC 2005-2006 sample, were: 12 percent milk; nine percent peanuts; seven percent eggs and five percent shrimp.
There is also increased awareness of food intolerance and food sensitivity, however. “Therefore, those who may claim to have allergies may be reporting intolerances and sensitivities. Although reactions may not be life-threatening, they still pose reasons why people avoid these foods,” Kaiden says. Willow Street has trained its staff to discern the difference, Reineking says. “We find people are speaking up, making requests, so we really go out of our way to accommodate that here, as much as we can. We will ask people if they have severe allergies or more of an intolerance,” she says.
Papa Murphy’s, with headquarters in Vancouver, Washington, has established itself as the largest “Take ‘N’ Bake” pizza company in the world — and is now the fifth-largest pizza company in the United States with more than 1,200 stores in 37 states. Like Willow Street, Papa Murphy’s hears from customers about the range of allergies, from wheat to peanuts, tree nuts and soy. Because customers can custom-order their pies before baking them at home, Papa Murphy’s provides extensive information on its Web site about its ingredients, says Laura Lashbrook, quality assurance manager in research and development.
“We recognize ‘The Big 8’ that the FDA recognizes,” Lashbrook says. “We identify those ingredients with allergic proteins, as well as information about manufacturing facilities and whether ingredients are in the same facility as the allergen. There is such a varying degree of sensitivity. With allergens, there are so many varying degrees of reactions, so we definitely are sensitive to that.” Lashbrook notes that franchise owners are trained on cross contamination and that they also display ingredients in each of their stores, in addition to what is posted online. All ingredients from vendors also go to distribution centers. Annually, Papa Murphy’s asks each vendor partner to complete a food allergy sensitivity sheet for its Web site. For example, a pepperoni vendor would list whether the pepperoni has an allergen, was on shared equipment with an allergen or in a shared facility with an allergen. That degree of detail is important, Lashbrook says. “That’s where we want to be in regards to this issue.”
Kaiden likes that in New York City, many servers specifically ask if anyone at the table has food allergies. She also suggests restaurants keep separate refrigerators, cabinets, cookware, cutting boards, utensils and even dishwashers.
“Items that are common allergens, such as shellfish and nuts, should be kept in separate containers, and dishes can be prepared in separate cookware in order to avoid cross-contamination,” she says. “If that is not an option, the menu should contain a disclaimer stating that this restaurant has a kitchen that prepares food with nuts, wheat, soy, shellfish etc.”
The Two-Way Street
Sometimes a restaurant has trouble covering all the bases with food allergies if customers don’t communicate, says Nancy Reineking of Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza.
“You feel there’s a two-way street. They order it and don’t say any- thing. We have had people say, ‘Oh I don’t want onions on that,’ but they didn’t say it was because of an allergy,” she says. “There are times when I feel like if I was allergic, I would be really careful.”
So what’s a restaurant to do? Have servers communicate that the busier it is, the harder it is to separate ingredients or be vigilant. They should make it a habit to ask customers about allergies, even when customers don’t bring it up, she says. “If you’re in fine dining, the kitchen is going slowly, but we are an open kitchen, and everything is out, and there is flour in the air. You have to let them know that, too,” she says.
Heidi Lynn Russell specializes in writing about the issues that affect small business owners. She is a regular contributor to Pizza Today and lives in Wilmore, Kentucky.