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Food allergies and eating out



Yesterday, a conversation began in the comment section of John Kessler’s review of Double Zero Napoletana about food allergies and how they are handled in restaurants, and it got me thinking.

While I don’t suffer from any food allergies myself, I’m no stranger to them. My wife has a pine nut allergy – no other tree nuts, oddly enough, JUST pine nuts – and I’m always on the watch for those little buggers whenever we eat out. I’m constantly asking servers about anything suspicious (you can bet dishes with the word “pesto” in there get a thorough investigation). It has given us both a few scares over the years, but none like back when we were dating and went on our first and last trip to the now defunct Mama Soos Café in Buckhead.

While the entire dining experience was interesting in its own right – complete with entering the restaurant to find the entire kitchen staff watching an episode of Spongebob Square Pants in the middle of the empty dining room –dessert defined the evening.

As we stepped to the register to pay our tab, I noticed an enticing little display case of sweet, flakey, pale green baklava. I’m more of a savory-over-sweets kind of a guy, but I have a serious soft spot for this honey-drenched pastry, so I naturally ordered a few to go. As we backed out of our parking spot to go sit at the impossibly long red light at the intersection of Piedmont and Lenox, my wife digs into the bag of desserts and sneaks a bite of my baklava.

Before she has even finished swallowing, she grabs me and says that we need to drive to the hospital. Those weren’t pistachios in that baklava.

I’ll spare you all of the details of how the night played out – it involved fast and reckless driving, being stalked and berated by a woman that I cut off while speeding to get medical attention, and concluded with me standing in a Walgreen’s bathroom stabbing an EpiPen into my girlfriend’s leg – because that isn’t really the point of me telling this story. The point is: whose fault was it?

The baklava was green, but there wasn’t a pistachio to be found. Granted, we both knew she had a specific nut allergy, and neither of us stopped to clarify, but isn’t it reasonable to assume that we were purchasing pistachio baklava? We all know what happens when you assume, don’t we kids? That right. You get stabbed in the leg in a Walgreens bathroom.

When it comes to food allergies, who bears the burden of responsibility?

Is it fair or reasonable to expect restaurants to list every single ingredient in their food, or should the allergic party be more mindful and constantly inquire? Is it somewhere in the middle? One could at least make the case for divulging every kind of nut in a particular dish. Should the diner simply divulge the allergy whenever ordering food, just to be safe?

Where does the restaurant’s responsibility end and the allergic diner’s begin?

P.S. It was totally Mama Soos fault. Why they dyed their pine nuts to look like pistachios, I’ll never know.

P.P.S. And partially my wife’s fault. Why she wasn’t carrying an EpiPen and forced me to scream at an elderly pharmacist to “hurry up or my girlfriend is gonna die”, I’ll never know.

32 comments Add your comment


July 1st, 2011
6:46 am

My sister is deathly allergic to every type of nut, and we’ve had scares as well. I think the restaurant/proprietor is responsible for fully educating staff on the ingredient lists of the food, while it is the diner’s responsibility to inquire. I’ve asked about nut content at too many places only to get the response, “no…I don’t think there’s nuts in anything.” It’s their job to know comprehensive, accurate information.


July 1st, 2011
6:53 am

So I read the whole article, and the only part that really sticks with me is that you called your wife your girlfriend?? What’s up with that?


July 1st, 2011
7:01 am

I completely agree with Sue. I am allergic to soy, corn, gluten, and all animal products (meats, dairy, eggs, etc). It’s definitely not easy eating out, but I cannot stand when the servers do not have a clue what is in the food they serve and are not willing to go and check! I see it as my responsibility to inform the restaurant that I have food allergies before I even order, but I see it as the restaurants responsibility to let me know if they have the capability of working within those restraints. Some places are very honest and tell me that they cannot guarantee a lack of contamination and I have sat there unable to eat but happier than those times when I have eaten only to have a reaction afterwards.

Name (required)

July 1st, 2011
7:02 am

Ummm…..sometimes people have girlfriends before they marry them. Was that really so hard to figure out?


July 1st, 2011
7:02 am

His wife was his girlfriend at the time the story took place. He’s recently married.


July 1st, 2011
7:20 am

While I agree that the staff should be fully up to speed on the ingredients in all dishes, it would also be helpful if customers would stop claining to be allergice to every darn thing. So many people come in claiming to be “allergic” to something that in reality, they just don’t like. With all these customers crying wolf, a staff can get complacent about protecting those that are actually allergic.


July 1st, 2011
8:07 am

Ex-chef is right. Those people crying wolf definitely make it harder for those of us who are legitimately allergic to everything to get taken seriously – even among friends and co-workers. However, if someone tells you that they do not want something in their food, whatever the reason, shouldn’t a restaurant be honest about their ability to fulfill the request? I am allergic to soy, my mom just tries really hard not to eat it – shouldn’t we both get the same answer when we ask, “Is there soy in that?”


July 1st, 2011
8:15 am

My husband is fatally allergic to all tree nuts. He tells the waiters this and sometimes they check, sometimes they just pretend to, which is how he ends up in the emergency room. But as Ex-chef above says, many people (women, usually) tell waiters they are allergic to things just because they don’t feel like eating them. I have heard people say this more than once. The waiters leave the “allergen” on the food, the women gripe and pick it off but keep eating. This tends to make the waiters not believe you, and has driven me to now say “No really, HE’LL DIE.”

I would like to add that I would never wait tables because it is a miserable, thankless job, so my sympathy is with most people on the wait staff. If I waited tables, everyone would be wearing their food. However, it would be nice if they would check for nuts when we ask them to.

Carla Roqs

July 1st, 2011
8:19 am

@justmytwocents–so glad you tried to rate the value of your contribution, but…. you overcalculated. i think the major weight is on the person with the allergies. but i also think the restaurant should post the elements in their recipes that cause the most common food allergies. i find that most restaurants do so. jon-loving that fact that after all the “drama” you continued dating and then married her. congrats!! (i know its late, but.. :) )


July 1st, 2011
9:05 am

Absolutely the weight of responsibility is on the person with the allergies to inform their server of any allergies they may have. Once that is done, responsibility transfers to the restaurant to make sure that any allergy-inducing food items are not present in that person’s dish.

I have a friend with a shellfish allergy – not deathly, just intensely gastro-intestinally. One night at a resto in Philly she ordered a spare rib plate, and informed the server of her issues and was assured that the ribs weren’t cooked near, with, or even close to any shellfish. Even one of the kitchen staff came out to discuss it with her.

Then, about 30 minutes later, she’s having serious issues. Not the kind of issues you want to have in a car full of people if you take my meaning. Come to find out, the slaw/salad that was on the plate contained oyster sauce as part of its dressing.

So whose fault is this? Really, nobody’s. She asked, they checked, and probably didn’t even think about the sauce. I’m not sure I would have – she didn’t, and she has the allergy. We went back to the restaurant several times after, and have had no other issues – but you can bet she’s never ordered the spare ribs again. :)


July 1st, 2011
9:56 am

Unfortunately, law suits (based on unfortunate incidences) shape how restaurants and people operate, hence chains posting calories, NO MSG signs and cups that state that coffee’s, well, hot.

That said, most places specify if any types of nuts are used on the process and my family’s learned to ask what kind of oil they use for frying. I think if your then-girlfriend does have food allergies, that she should always carry an epi-pen with her. You can never tell if there was a child in the seat before you who smeared peanut butter along the arms.

Restaurants aside, potlucks can be a problem. People may not know or care about your food allergies. So many people seem to think that “a little” won’t be a problem. Well, if you’ve raced a loved one to the ER because of “a little” of this or that, it’s a problem. Also, if someone asks what’s in the food due to allergies, you TELL THEM. No secret ingrediants like a dash of vodka or red pepper when you know those can be deadly. No hidden peanut butter in the baked beans because they give an extra meaty note.

The one place that worries me is when they serve peanuts on airplanes. All that re-circulated air. The other places would be mom and pop type ethnic restaurants, especially Asian. You never know if they use which shellfish in whatever stock, how contained they are with the peanut sauce and where they throw a dash of sauce.


July 1st, 2011
9:57 am

I believe the responsibility is shared between customer and restaurant. Not only should customers be upfront about their food allergies, and the severity, but wait staff should be knowledgeable on the ingredients. If the waiter doesn’t know if the chef used chicken stock and veg stock, we have a problem. Luckily, restaurants are learning that people want and need transparency when it comes to dining.

On the other hand patrons should do their research. Check if the restaurant has an online menu, some even have gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan menus. Educate yourself with common ingredients in salad dressings, soups etc. Grab some cookbooks (European, new American) and familiarize yourself with how dishes are made. It makes dining out with allergies that much easier. I’m allergic to wheat, eggs, chicken, pork and hazelnuts. Surely I’m not going to order gumbo for an entree and finish the night with a Nutella crepe. I don’t even have to ask about the ingredients or preparation because I already know.


July 1st, 2011
9:58 am

Jon, my guess is that peanuts, even stained ones, were cheaper than pistachios. Just like cheap fish is called “sole” or “swordfish” regularly. Just like punched shark fin gets called “diver scallops.”


July 1st, 2011
10:10 am

At what point do Lennox and Piedmont intersect?

Elliot Garcia

July 1st, 2011
10:16 am

Pesonally, I think people with nut allergies should just stay home….


July 1st, 2011
10:29 am

My ex was allergic to peanuts, walnuts and hazelnuts. Not deathly, but definitely gave him some issues. I always tried to make a point to ask “what kind of nuts are these?” and my family would not cook with those nuts. We tried to be proactive as possible, but I’m sure that it wouldnt have been enough had he been deathly allergic. And it was hard enough as it was.


July 1st, 2011
10:31 am

I am very allergic to shellfish, a serious death-inducing allergy. I have been lucky that I have only had three really bad experiences in restaurants from this, but those three times were very, very scary. The most serious was when in a sushi restaurant with friends, I had informed the restaurant of my allergy but the chef had prepared something with shrimp right before preparing my food, he’d only wiped his hands, not washed them. That was enough to put me on the floor turning blue and my heart stopping. Thankfully, friends knew what to do (epi-pen and quick trip to ER). I guarantee that chef will wash his hands from now on.

needs salt

July 1st, 2011
10:39 am

Just stay home and drink water…

The Blissful Glutton

July 1st, 2011
11:15 am

I think the weight of the responsibility is equally distributed. One half on the customer to inform/ask (I have a food allergy and inform/ask my servers to the point of obsession) and the other on the establishment to comply–something a lot sadly don’t do. I can’t tell you how many times I have told my server I am allergic to X, only to find it on plate once my dish comes. Luckily, my allergy is not severe, but restaurants REALLY need to be vigilant should it be something that could cause death like the nut or shellfish allergies many of my friends have. Anything else is irresponsible.


July 1st, 2011
11:27 am

I’m deathly allergic to bees, but so far i have not had to ask if any food i’ve been served had bees in it. But I carry an epipen with me at all times, just in case.


July 1st, 2011
4:29 pm

I say it’s the customer’s responsibility to ask if the dish contains X, and it’s the restaurant’s responsibility to respond with a yes, a no, or a we-can’t-be-sure. Period. I don’t think a restaurant should have any responsibility to list potential allergens or, for that matter, list ingredients. Even in a case where one would not expect baklava to have been made with green-dyed pine nuts, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as both pine nuts and pistachios are common foods. It’s not like the restaurant is making a dish with an ingredient that is not commonly classified as a “food.”

Jim R

July 1st, 2011
5:34 pm

My wife is deathly allergic of my girlfriend. To avoid an over-reaction or even death I avoid any dish involving both of them. Scary to think anyone would dye pine nuts to look like pistachio’s…wonder if the server’s really knew. An honest list of ingrediants is imperative.

Tarah Jakubiak

July 2nd, 2011
12:04 pm

Its hard to say who bears the responsibility. I suffer with a long list of allergies. And obviously I know better than to dive right in and eat something, but I am sure there are times I wish I could. The bottom line is that we can’t do it alone. I know my allergies, my husband knows them and I make sure that the restaurant knows them as well. I will hand the waiter my dietary alert card in order for them to know me and my needs. Thank you for writing this piece. It is always good to bring more awareness to allergies.


July 2nd, 2011
4:45 pm

Elliot Garcia, you obviously are not a caring person.
My step daughter has the tree nut allergy. We are aware of it, carry an epi-pen ( well, she carries it).
That being said, we state the allergy, restate that it will cause her ” To DIe “. She has been retested twice, still has the allergy.
She loves to eat out. Why should she have to stay home ? Once the allergy is stated, I feel it’s the restaurant’s responsibility. We have had only one problem, and that was at Craft. She would like nothing better, then to be rid of this allergy. It is when the tree nut is hidden like above, or the server does not know what is in the dish, that causes problems.
There is a difference from…I don’t like, to I will die…..


July 3rd, 2011
12:50 pm

“She loves to eat out. Why should she have to stay home ?”

It is unfortunate that someone has a challenge/disability that limits their ability to enjoy everything that most others can but I don’t believe that the whole world can or should be made to bend to every individual’s requirements. Many restaurants can decisively state that common allergens can be removed or are isolated but good sense would dictate that you don’t order in an establishment where isolation of a specific allergen is not required and if there is any doubt, you go elsewhere.


July 4th, 2011
11:42 am

When I was in China, my partner (who is Chinese) gave me a little 3×5 card to show to restaurant people. On it he wrote, in Chinese, “I am allergic to shellfish. No shrimp, no crab, no lobster, no clam, no oyster. I would die if I ate those. Don’t cause me death!”. It worked out great for me, no problems!

Elliot Garcia

July 5th, 2011
10:11 am

WOFOC, my point is that you feel comfortable trusting your step daughters life with a server who makes $2.13 an hour plus tips? I guarantee you that most servers could hardly pass an ingredients test at their restaurant…


July 5th, 2011
10:26 am

Earlier this year, I shared a Blog with John Kessler regarding responsibilities of a restaurant and the dining public regarding nutritional issues in the food. Such things as actual caloric content, fat, carbohydrate, and sodium amounts, ingredients that are health risks, and how to handle food allergies. There was open hositility from the reponses to the idea that a restaurant might need to be transparent with regards to the food they serve. With regards to food allergies, there was mixed responses. The fundamental issue in food allergies is who is told that a diner has an issue. Should the waiter or waitress be responsible or should the chef or manager be notified immediately upon your being seated that they have a guest at risk and the management insure a healthy experience. More imporant is the issue of full disclosure of ingredients, particularly hidden unexpected ones. The readers of this blog favored a buyer beware attitude rather than a proactive role of the management of a restaurant. There is a naive attitude among the readers of this blog that a public shares a responsibitlity in food allergies beyond informing someone at a restaurant that they have one. What is acually in the food you buy at a restaurant is not obvious from the menu. Frequently, the chef must actually research the recipe for an item to see what is included in it. For a number of restaurants that do not make everything from scratch, they need to see what is in their supplied items. The wait staff is not the best source of information. Either the menu states that nuts, shellfish, etc are included in an item and then the diner may ask which one or the management/chef needs to come to the table to detemine explicitly if the items being ordered are indeed safe for that individual. For the naysayers out there, go to your favorite restuaurant and ask detailed questions of the wait staff about the food. You will be amazed about how little they know about the details. Such things as whether or not there are trans fats, gluten, nuts, shellfish, pork, beef, etc. in an item may be completely unknown to them. For example, does the pie crust contain lard? Do vegetables have pork in them? Does the clam chowder have bacon? Do vegetables in a Chinese restaurant have pacific shrimp? Do soups or sauces use flour with gluten as a thickening agent? What types of oils are used in frying and cooking? Hopefully, this blog will turn the Atlanta restaurant crowd around to making the managers/chefs at a restaurant be more responsive to their customers with food issues.


July 5th, 2011
9:33 pm

I know it was an emergency situation but didn’t the Walgreens pharmacy require a doctor’s script before handing you an epipen? Or, do they waive that requirement for such emergencies? I’m glad they gave you one but just wondering about the rules regarding this. My 4 yr old has peanut and tree nut allergies and I have 4 (yes, 4!) epipens……but just curious about how a pharmacy would handle such a situation where you don’t have a doctor’s script (in case, God forbid, I don’t have mine with me!).

Linda W

July 5th, 2011
11:27 pm

To those who say “Stay home,” don’t you think people sometimes have to travel? And for those with allergies, beware of salads! On a cruise, I carefully specified what I did not want on my salad and even told them not to cut it up because I noticed that they use the same cutter over and over. Then I saw the salad chef lay the cutter down on my salad, thus getting cheese, croutons, and shrimp from other salads on mine. I protested and got them to start over and avoid contaminating my salad with common tools. Having allergies is a big problem when you travel.

Jon Watson

July 6th, 2011
10:44 am

@JJ – Thankfully she had a script for one in her car. A pharmacist would definitely refuse someone off of the street claiming to be having a reaction and frantically asking for a shot of epinephrine. I’d say keep a script handy (in your car or purse) just in case.

Krystle Meyer

July 6th, 2011
12:05 pm

Its should definately fall on the restaurant to protect there paying customers. I am allergic to oats, dairy, nuts, cheese, beef, pork, chicken, salad, soy, coffee, garlic, gluten-free, bacon (but not sausage), eggs, root vegetables and crucifle vegetables, and I am sensitive to salt. I may die if I eat any of those. The restaurant needs to tell me what they are giving me so I dont die.