Eating Out: Allergy-Aware Restaurants

in Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining
Published: June 12, 2013

Maggiano’s Little Italy

From-scratch new world Italian
44 locations in 21 states and the District of Columbia

A from-scratch kitchen with fresh produce, seafood and meat delivered daily enables Maggiano’s chain of restaurants to customize almost anything to suit their customers’ needs.

When a food-allergic guest is seated, a chef is typically called to the table to handle the customer’s order from beginning to end. The chef takes their order, prepares it with any necessary modifications, and even personally delivers it to the table to prevent any potential miscommunication about the order. Since everything is prepared fresh and their recipes clearly call out ingredients and allergens, the chef can even whip up a completely customized meal, if needed.

Though Maggiano’s takes pride in its egg-free and gluten-free pastas, guests order from the main menu rather than a special food allergy list. Years ago they tested a gluten-free menu, but found that diners preferred the custom treatment.

Maggiano’s certainly didn’t set out to be a food allergy destination, but according to Jeff Mann, senior manager of culinary research and development, they quickly learned what leverage it could offer.

“Say you’ve got someone with a gluten issue or food allergy who is heading out to dinner. They are going to pick a restaurant where they feel comfortable, and you know they’re going to bring four or five more friends as customers.”

Maggiano’s mission is to create a memorable dining experience for everyone, and they’ve discovered significant value in going the extra mile for special diet guests.


Burtons Grill

Grilled meats, seafood, sandwiches and salads
10 locations on the east coast

Seven years ago executive chef Denise Herrera watched as the CEO of Burtons Grill, Kevin Harron, modified his lunch to be safe for his celiac needs. She wondered, “We’re a from-scratch kitchen; why shouldn’t we allow people to choose between gluten-free and not gluten-free?” As someone with a shrimp allergy herself, the idea ballooned to include customizations for other special diet needs.

Herrera, now the vice president of operations for Burtons Grill, felt that everyone should have the right to enjoy eating out, and has been instrumental in making Burtons one of the most allergy-friendly restaurant chains in the United States.

Burtons takes a teamwork approach toward food allergy awareness. When a food-allergic or gluten-sensitive guest arrives, the server alerts the floor manager, and the dietary needs are relayed to the kitchen.

To prevent a communication breakdown, Herrera ensures that staff members have ample education on menu item ingredients, safe food preparation, and designated utensils and serving plates for allergen orders. As extra insurance, all of Burtons restaurant managers go through mandatory food allergy training and periodic re-training.

Though Burtons has a gluten-free menu with plenty of options (including a chocolate fallen cake), diners with special food needs are encouraged to choose what they want from the main menu, and in most cases, the kitchen is able to accommodate modifications. One example is a lemon “butter” sauce that they frequently prepare dairy-free for patrons.

Harron and Herrera have watched Burtons Grill grow exponentially, thanks in part to the care taken with food-allergic diners. But Herrera is quick to point out it is the appreciation from special diet customers that continues to motivate their team.


Uno Chicago Grill

Pizza, pasta and grill items
141 locations in 24 states, Puerto Rico, and other parts of the world

Pizza may be a centuries-old Italian tradition, but deep dish pies are a more recent culinary creation, traced back to the original Chicago-based Uno, which opened in 1943.

Modern-day Uno was also among the first to recognize the needs of celiac customers. “We began working with a nutritionist in 2005 who was quite a visionary,” says Christopher Gatto, the vice president of food and beverage at Uno. “He suggested addressing celiac disease. The CEO at the time was also very health conscious and wanted to make the menu transparent for our guests.”

Uno launched a gluten-free menu in 2006, later integrating it into the chain’s main menu and expanding the options to include pizza. “We worked for two years to create a gluten-free crust that we felt represented our brand,” says Gatto.

He indicates that Uno feels comfortable in accommodating any of the Top 8 allergens, thanks to a broad menu and ability to accommodate simple customizations, such as no cheese on their dairy- and egg-free flatbread pizza crust.

Though the CEO retired in 2012, the mission of transparency has persisted. Guests are encouraged to call the Uno hotline with any questions, and menus with ingredients and allergens are provided at nutritional kiosks in the lobby of every restaurant location.

Once seated, food-allergic guests are greeted by a manager who acts as their server. There is a two-step ordering system to ensure proper communications with the kitchen, where strict protocols are employed to help avoid cross-contamination.

U.S. & Canada Restaurants


Red Robin

Burgers, sandwiches, wraps, salads, appetizers
474 locations across the U.S. and Canada

Their red and yellow neon can be spotted in almost any American drive-through town or destination, plus several Canadian locations in B.C. and Alberta, which makes Red Robin’s food allergy awareness a treasure for special diet travelers.

“We are in the people business serving burgers, not the other way around, so we do what we can to make sure our guests get what they want when they dine at Red Robin. That includes taking care of and accommodating our guests with food allergies,” says Robin Hamm, Red Robin’s director of quality assurance, U.S. operations.

Going the extra mile, Red Robin’s restaurants are peanut-free, and each location receives an allergen menu update once a month to ensure accuracy. To safeguard food-allergic guests, a restaurant manager oversees the entire order process, serving allergen menu items in designated yellow baskets as visual confirmation.

Red Robin also offers a complete gluten-free menu and a made-to-order structure that allows diners to customize their meal. The chain’s kitchens can easily modify more than two dozen gourmet burgers by holding the cheese or the mayonnaise or enclosing the burger in a lettuce wrap or gluten-free bun.

Alongside, Red Robin’s Bottomless Steak Fries (ordered without seasoning) and sweet potato fries are cooked in a dedicated fryer using highly refined soybean oil. If you would like a lighter accompaniment, their staff will swap a salad with pleasure.


Fairmont Hotels & Resorts

Varied restaurants with steak, sandwiches, soups, salads, pastas and more.
60+ properties worldwide; 20 in Canada and 19 in the U.S.

You don’t need to be a hotel guest to enjoy the many allergy-friendly restaurants on Fairmont properties. All locations have the Lifestyle Cuisine Plus initiative, which offers special menus for people with dietary restrictions, such as gluten-free or vegan. And when a server is informed of a severe food allergy, the kitchen staff steps up their game.

“As soon as we get an allergy of that kind, myself or one of the sous chefs will immediately go out and speak to the guest,” says executive chef Geoff Carkner of the Fairmont Vancouver Airport. “We go through all the risks and let them know exactly what we’re working with.”

To prevent cross-contamination from occurring, separate equipment is used. “We’ve even gone so far as to pull new, never-used equipment out from our storage,” says Carkner.

Whether you want to enjoy a Sterling Silver 10-ounce steak (Fairmont Vancouver Airport) or locally sourced Ontario Rack of Lamb (Fairmont Royal York, Toronto), the kitchen staff will do whatever they can to provide a safe dining experience. To ensure sufficient education and awareness, chefs and sous-chefs at Fairmont are required to take and pass a special course, which includes food allergy training.

“We have a duty of care – when a guest comes in and says, ‘I have this’, their life is in our hands,” says Carkner. “You can’t take chances with someone’s life. We treat it very, very seriously.”

The Old Spaghetti Factory

Pasta, salad and grill items.
14 locations in Canada, 40+ locations in the U.S.

Though it isn’t a large chain, The Old Spaghetti Factory is positioned in vacation hot spots across the country, including Whistler, Banff, Victoria and Toronto. Each location offers a warm, family appeal and a comfort zone for those with food allergies.

“To make sure our guests feel secure, we address each and every food allergy with the utmost importance,” says Andrew Buckley, the marketing and promotions manager for The Old Spaghetti Factory Canada. For many restaurants, the gluten-free boom was the catalyst for food allergy awareness. But Buckley says The Old Spaghetti Factory established “strict” food allergy procedures long before the diet of celiac disease gained a wide following.

When a customer indicates a food allergy, a manager steps in to handle the order personally and communicate with the kitchen. In the food preparation, a separate space is cleared to help prevent cross-contamination, and the chefs are trained to consult their recipe book to verify ingredients; they will even provide a copy of the recipe upon customer request. Food allergen orders are then served on a separate tray to ensure their own safe space.

About two years ago, this pasta-heavy establishment added a simple gluten-free menu. It has since expanded to include popular dishes, like Roasted Garlic Grilled Chicken served over corn-based noodles. Nonetheless, special-diet patrons are encouraged to order off the main menu at The Old Spaghetti Factory. The chefs prepare the food from scratch, and can accommodate ingredient swaps or omissions.

Buckley declares: “Our mission has always been to provide an exceptional experience for anyone who walks through the doors, whether they have dietary restrictions or not.”

Canada Restaurants


Boston Pizza

Pizza, pasta, burgers
340+ locations across Canada

The first Boston Pizza opened in Edmonton in 1964. Despite its name, this family pizza joint and sports bar is 100% Canadian, with locations found coast-to-coast. In fact, when Vancouver faced Boston during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoff finals, all Boston Pizza locations in B.C. were temporarily rebranded as ‘Vancouver Pizza’ in a show of support.

For those with food allergies or celiac disease, pizza may seem untouchable – it’s covered with dairy-containing cheese, crusts are traditionally made from wheat, and soy can be found in the pepperoni. But at Boston Pizza, food allergy awareness and accommodation are toppings provided free of charge.

Upon arrival, guests will notice a notification on the menu which tells them to inform staff of any food allergies or sensitivities. Cooks and servers have read a manual that explains food allergies, symptoms of allergic reactions, hidden ingredients and common allergens. The chain also requires detailed information from its suppliers about any top 11 allergens their food products may contain.

Staff also have access to charts that show menu items and list whether any common allergens are present. Beyond these standardized precautions, extra steps are taken whenever a guest informs the restaurant of their food allergy:

“When an allergy alert comes into our kitchens, we have specific actions that the kitchen needs to take to reduce the possibility of cross contamination,” says Perry Schwartz, the company’s director of communications. Hands are washed, new aprons are put on, and the food is prepared using newly opened ingredients. A separate area of the kitchen is used, away from the other, non-allergy alert foods. Anything that will touch the food, from tongs to ladles, cutting boards to knives, is pre-washed and sanitized before being used to prepare the meal.
Boston Pizza also offers gluten-free items, including pizzas and pastas, via their “GlutenWise” menu.


The Keg Steakhouse & Bar

Steak, ribs, seafood, salads
90 locations across Canada

Canadian readers of Allergic Living have been praising The Keg for years for their allergy aware policies and practices. The first Keg location opened in North Vancouver in 1971. Since then, it has grown to include 90 locations across Canada, as well as several south of the border.

Every Keg location has a special allergy guide, which is also available online, that lists menu items and whether or not they contain 13 of the most common allergens. As is the case with many other similar menus at different establishments, customers with severe food allergies are urged to not rely solely on the allergen menu, but to use it as a starting point before notifying a staff member.

“At The Keg we want to make sure our guests can enjoy a great dining experience with us while feeling confident that we take their food allergies and sensitivities seriously,” says Karyn Byrne, director of marketing for Keg Restaurants Ltd. “When a guest notifies their server that they have an allergy or sensitivity, a Keg manager will visit the table to help the guest make a selection”.

After the allergy is brought to the attention of the server or manager, the server will ring in the order with an “allergy” notice to the kitchen. The manager will also follow up directly with the kitchen to ensure no miscommunication occurs.

Once the kitchen receives an order marked as “allergy”, special precautions are taken to avoid cross-contamination. These include the use of sanitized cooking vessels and utensils, as well as thoroughly cleaning surfaces which will be used to prepare the meal. Orders for people with severe food allergies are also prepared in a separate area of the kitchen, away from items which may contain the allergen.

When the dish is ready, the manager oversees its delivery to the table in order to make sure everything is correct, for both the person with the food allergy as well as for everyone else who is sitting at the table.

The Keg encourages guests to inform their server of their allergy upon each visit, so that they can have the most up-to-date information available as ingredients and recipes can change on occasion.

Moxie’s Grill & Bar

Steak, pasta, burgers and salads
60+ locations across Canada

Many restaurants are just learning to accommodate food allergies, but Moxie’s has welcomed food-allergic guests with open arms for years. The chain’s founder has children with severe food allergies and understands the desire for families to safely eat out. As a result, Moxie’s encourages people with food allergies to dine at its restaurants and the company expresses pride in its allergy awareness and guest protection procedures.

Moxie’s management believes “the best defence is communication” for food-allergic diners. When a server is informed of a severe food allergy, a manager visits the table to ensure the allergy is properly understood, and to clearly explain Moxie’s allergen processes and any potential risks. Once conveyed to the kitchen, allergen orders are prepared by the chef in a separate area with freshly washed equipment to prevent cross-contamination.

To help plan your meal, Moxie’s offers a common allergen guide online and at each location. Depending on the food allergies at hand, the varied menu can provide a wide range of options, from grilled top sirloin to kid-friendly chicken tenders with fries. It’s also fine to inquire about ingredients or make a special request – Moxie’s menu items are routinely modified to accommodate allergy requests.

Next: Allergy-Friendly Fast Food Restaurant Chains