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Restaurants Can Kill. Does Your Server Understand, or Care, about your special food requests?

Updated on June 17, 2015

Health, Religion, Lifestyle, or Just a Preference

What are your special needs and requests when you eat at a restaurant?

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Are your requests based on Health, Religion, Lifestyle, or Preference?

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Your Special Request CAN be denied.

Restaurants can deny special requests, but they usually don't and that's because they're focused on earnings. When you order "no anchovies" and the food comes with anchovies, it's aggravating but not life threatening. When you order "no dairy" and you get dairy, it may be deadly.

Today is March 12, 2015. The Nancy Grace Show just spotlighted the death of a young boy from anaphylactic shock that he suffered after eating pancakes. The boy was allergic to dairy products. His parents took him out to eat at a restaurant. CBS Minnesota reported that the mother of Scott Johnson,16, asked the server to find out if the pancakes contained any dairy products. The server checked with the cook and reported back to the mother that they did not. The mother then told the server the grill would have to be cleaned before the pancakes were made because even cross contact of ingredients like butter could be dangerous.


Regarding the ingredients in the pancakes, I found that the owners state on their website that they "keep that pancake mixture closely under wraps!" If so, were the employees qualified to answer questions from customers about the ingredients?

Very revealing is the following review that I also found about the Minnesota Nice Cafe. This was published on a site called FindMeGlutenFree wherein Josh Q wrote: "very little concern or precautions for cross-contamination. GF Pancakes made on same griddle, flipped with same spatula as wheat-based. GF toast toasted/grilled on the same equipment as well. Server not able to answer questions about ingredients of menu items either."

The recipe for the pancakes are a family secret.
The recipe for the pancakes are a family secret. | Source

It may seem that I'm targeting this establishment, and in a way I am, because it's the most recent example of the possibility that a restaurant caused the death of a person. It's the poster child for the idea that Restaurants Can Deny Your Special Request.

How Restaurants Should Manage Special Food Requests

1. Knowledge of Ingredients: Make sure the Person in Charge has knowledge of all food ingredients. This isn't easy because it doesn't entail just knowing a recipe. It means you must also routinely check the ingredients-of- the-ingredients.

The ingredients-of-the-ingredients you use in your recipes may have changed. I am a retired food inspector and performed inspections at manufacturing plants under contract for the FDA. I inspected a firm called "Venda Ravioli" who produced pasta products. The company had changed a baking mix used in their pasta and the new mix included soy. But the product label did not list soy because the ingredients in the new mix had not been checked. Venda Ravioli is a very reputable firm but a mistake occurred and luckily no injury was reported.

2. Make sure there is always a Person in Charge on duty. That is the person the staff should consult with when a special request is made. Also, the Person in Charge should always discuss the request directly with the customer to ensure no miscommunication.

3. Use only equipment that has been thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. Traces of an allergen or an ingredient must not be acceptable. Traces can cause death, but in lieu of death they can be unacceptable to a customer. People who order vegan want vegan. People who order kosher want kosher. Traces also are unseen by the customer who made the special request, and therefore unknown to that person, and that's not fair.

4. Practice Proper Food Safety Procedures. Prevent cross-contamination of raw with ready to eat food, and cross-contact of foods that contain allergens. Using the same spatula to handle a rare hamburger and then a fully cooked hamburger causes cross-contamination. Using the same spatula to handle dairy-free foods as well as foods that aren't dairy free is an example of cross-contact. Both can cause illness and death.

5. Deny the request or inform the customer that it cannot be done. You may lose a customer but you'll save your business. Don't half-heartedly try to accommodate them. If they said "no anchovies" but anchovy paste was used in the sauce, then tell the customer. Don't serve them the item just because the anchovies aren't visible.

Never lie to a customer. If you're all out of Splenda and the customer doesn't want sugar, then tell the customer that you can't make it the way the requested.

If you discover that an employee is not taking requests seriously, or ignoring them, or practicing unsafe handling procedures, then either counsel or fire that employee.

8 Major Food Allergens

The following is a list of the 8 Major Food Allergens that the FDA has mandated must be identified on food labels. This list is indicative of the most commonly encountered food allergens, but it does not in any manner represent the severity of any allergic reaction.

  1. Milk
  2. Eggs
  3. Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod)
  4. Crustacean shellfish (e.g. crab, lobster, shrimp)
  5. Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
  6. Peanuts
  7. Wheat
  8. Soybeans

"Each year in the U.S., it is estimated that anaphylactic reactions to food results in:

JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, reported that "The occurrence of anaphylaxis in the US is not as rare as is generally believed. On the basis of our figures, the problem of anaphylaxis may, in fact, affect 1.21% to 15.04% of the US population."

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 1 of every 4 children have a food allergy.


Allergens are only one risk consumers face when sourcing food. When my daughter was 19 years old she was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. We went to Dunkin Donuts for coffee. She ordered coffee with 12 Splenda; before she was diagnosed she'd order 12 sugars! She told the server it had to be Splenda because she was diabetic. Once served and sipped, she could tell it was mixed with sugar, and a check of her blood sugar verified that. We complained but never found out if it was truly a mistake, or if a server just ignored her warning.

Number of Persons (Cases) of Diagnosed Diabetes
Number of Persons (Cases) of Diagnosed Diabetes | Source

Special Food Requests

There is a long list of the special dietary needs facing consumers, their health, and the food service industry. Low salt for sufferers of high blood pressure, and low cholesteral for those with heart disease are 2 very common examples.

There are some who feel that people with special needs shouldn't go out to eat if their condition is serious; that they shouldn't expect food handlers and servers to take the extra steps to accommodate them. That may be true, but what is more true is that restaurants don't need to agree to accommodate a special request. Instead they routinely try to accommodate without serious consideration.

School Board Member Caught Showing Blatant Disregard

In addition to special dietary needs are special order requests, which are something everyone I know have made. One is Hindi and vegan and for religious purposes cannot consume meat. Should the restaurant go ahead and serve that person "vegan vegetable soup" made with chicken broth? Another is Jewish and cannot consume non-Kosher. Is it ok to serve that person non-Kosher meats?

If you asked for extra cheese and didn't get it, or served anchovies that you specifically ordered omitted, then you probably would complain or not eat the food. However, many ingredients including the ingredients specifically connected to a special request, are not always visible in the food and therefore the consumers are unaware that the restaurant did not accommodate them.

The majority of workers in a food establishment want to behave and be regarded in a professional manner. Unfortunately many of them are young, many are teenagers, and many just don't get it.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides the following information for the Food and Beverage Industry (

Quick Facts: Food and Beverage Serving and Related Workers

2012 Median Pay $18,400 per year $8.84 per hour

Entry-Level Education Less than high school

Work Experience in a Related Occupation None

Number of Jobs, 2012 4,438,100

People Who Need Accommodation

Not all the blame should be put upon the Minnesota Nice Cafe. The Johnson family did go to the restauriant and were familiar with the menu. They did forget to bring the epi-pen which could have saved their son's life. But epinephrine does not always work anyway. Since the restaurant specialized in breakfast items and milk is commonly used in breakfast foods like scrambled eggs and baked goods, then cross-contact was, by common sense, a substantial risk. So even the parents may not have understood the risk fully.

Allergies can develop in anyone. I became allergic to fur later in my life. And allergic reactions can become more severe without the sufferer even knowing. You can have a mild reaction first, and then a full blown medical emergency next time. So to say that people with severe allergies should not go out to eat is not the answer.

People with such severe allergies can live a real nightmare when trying to discern between safe and unsafe foods. They can't avoid the risk just by eating at home. Commercially prepared foods or food ingredients can contain the allergen. Product labels need to be reviewed constantly, and the labels may be incorrect due to an oversight by the manufacturer.


Shouldn't restaurants be more vigilant? If they are run professionally then of course they should. Many restaurant owners aren't trained professionals and are preoccupied with other more immediate concerns that are given a higher priority, like profits, paying wages, paying licensing fees, taxes, insurance, suppliers, etc. Also, many owners/operators try to produce too much to improve earnings; menus and variety are overly complicated for the size of the establishment and the staffing.

The key to preventing mere dissatisfaction, or even death, is diligence. Diligence on the part of the restaurant, and diligence on the part of the customers. Both need to give special requests proper consideration, and if accommodations are not acceptable, or even possible, then be honest with each other and decide whether or not to continue.

To summarize:

1) Restaurants want to sell their food and will agree to accommodate people without giving proper consideration to their request. Quick responses to special requests are not always appropriate.

2) Restaurants have the option of saying "No, we cannot accommodate you." They don't do that for many reasons.

3) People with severe allergies can be safer by eating at home, but they cannot assure safety by eating at home. Allergens can be present in foods not labelled properly.

4) An allergic reaction can be more severe than previously experienced. Precautions can be taken, but the severity cannot always be anticipated. You may realize that you are allergic to pork today, and then have a severe reaction to fried rice made in the same wok as pork fried rice tomorrow.


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