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.