We usually have great food allergy management at Red Robin, and it’s one of our go-to restaurants.
Update: Please see my post here with Red Robin’s response.
Last night we went out to eat at our usual place: Red Robin. As much as I’d like to try the more eclectic, local restaurants that focus on healthy, locally-sourced ingredients, I just haven’t made an effort to pick one and work with the general manager to determine whether my kids could eat there safely. So our old stand-bys are our old stand-bys because we’ve eaten there safely in the past, they’re chains – which means there is a certain amount of consistency among stores – and because menu changes are infrequent. Red Robin and Chipotle are our go-to places, and the kids’ favorite is Red Robin, so we’ve eaten there probably 50 times in the last year or so. Ninety percent of the time, we’ve had a great experience. Last night wasn’t one of them.
Printed Allergy Binder was Nixed
If you’re a frequent patron of Red Robin and someone in your family has food allergies, you’re probably familiar with the Allergy Menu, which is a three-ring binder with a section for each of the Top 8 food allergens. People with, say, a peanut and soy allergy can flip to those two sections to determine which meals are free from soy and peanut, or how to order to ensure those ingredients are left out. We knew that as of late-April Red Robin was discontinuing the printed allergy binder and instead was directing patrons to the app or website for allergy information. No big deal, right? Wrong.
I already had the phone app, and when I was alerted to the new procedure a few weeks ago, I opened the app but, for the life of me, couldn’t find where allergen information was. (I still can’t.) It’s easy enough to find on the website, but it’s a bit of a pain to navigate the website from my phone. So last night before we left the house, I used my computer to visit the website and check the menu. This means that my kids have to determine what they want to order before we leave – not a huge deal since they generally stick with just a couple of favorites. But last night, as I navigated the site, I was dismayed to find one of their favorites – the grilled cheese sandwich – absent from the menu when I selected peanuts and tree nuts as ingredients to avoid. As a test, we deselected all allergens except fish to see whether the item would appear. It didn’t. So we concluded that they’d made a mistake and left off the grilled cheese entirely. To me, this is extremely frustrating. Misspell a word or have text overlap an image on your website, and I’ll forgive you. But if your patrons’ lives are relying on the accuracy of the allergen information on your website, triple check it before making the site live because mistakes are unforgivable.
When we arrived at the restaurant, I told the hostess about the allergen error on the website and she said she’d send a manager right over (kudos for suggesting that and for following through). When I explained to the manager about the website, I told him, “I’m assuming the sandwich is still fine since we were just here less than two weeks ago and it was safe.” His response was, “I don’t know why it wouldn’t be. It’s just two pieces of bread and some cheese.” Oh, boy. I’m sure this manager had been trained in cross-contact avoidance in his own kitchen, but he clearly didn’t think through his comments before speaking or he doesn’t fully understand that the possibility exists for cross-contact further up the line in the food processing operation. I let it go, and I did allow my son to order his grilled cheese (which he ate safely).
Our waiter arrived and we ordered drinks. While he was getting them, I was kicking myself because the first thing I always mention to the server is: my kids have severe peanut allergies. (Actually, if the manager had been worth his salt, he would have found the server in charge of that station and would have already alerted him to the food allergies.) As soon as the server arrived with our drinks, I told him about the kids’ allergies. He said, “Oh, no worries. We don’t have anything with peanuts in our kitchen.” Again, OH, BOY! Please don’t ever tell a food allergy parent “no worries” or “there’s no need to worry” when you’re cooking or serving food to a child with food allergies. It’s demeaning and unhelpful. We will always worry, and you should too. That child’s life is in your hands and if your attitude is “no worries,” then you clearly don’t understand the responsibility that you’ve been given.
The second (actually is this the third or fourth?) red flag was that the server didn’t write down our order. I understand that memorizing orders is a nifty little trick that some servers like to employ to show their professionalism and dedication; however, alerting the kitchen to a patron’s food allergy is paramount. If you forget to tell the grill cook that I want my burger well done and it comes out medium, rectifying the issue is easily accomplished by throwing the burger back on the grill. If the kitchen doesn’t know about my kid’s food allergy and serves my kid his allergen, you can’t correct that.
For what it’s worth, my kids ate their meals, reaction-free.
Strike Three – You’re Out!
When the check arrived, I was utterly horrified that nowhere on our ticket (or chit, as the kitchen would call it) was the usual “allergy alert” verbiage that I’m so used to seeing. The ticket contains the same information that the kitchen sees, so I knew that if I wasn’t seeing “allergy alert – peanut allergy” on my ticket, the kitchen hadn’t seen it on theirs. I sat there for a second wondering how to proceed. I knew I wanted to talk to the server, but I didn’t necessarily want to rat him out to the manager because 1) the manager didn’t really seem overly concerned with managing our food allergies, and 2) I wanted the server to correct his mistake for future patrons, not get in trouble or get automatically annoyed with the next guest with food allergies because we “told” on him.
So when he came to gather my payment, I was going to point out that I noticed he’d neglected to enter the kids’ food allergies into the ordering system and, thus, the kitchen wasn’t even alerted to the fact that my kids meals should be treated specially. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but before I could get far, he interjected, with somewhat of a patronizing smile, with something like, “Oh, I’m trained in food allergies. When someone comes in with a food allergy, I enter information into the computer and then the kitchen knows about the allergy and they do things like change gloves, clean the prep area, and use clean pans to prepare the food.” I told him that, yes, I know; however, on our ticket there was no allergy information. Again, he said, “Oh, but there are no peanuts in our kitchen.” I calmly told him I understood that…and at this point I wanted to patronizing smile at him and explain that all those extra precautions he just explained to me that the kitchen takes for food allergy patrons were not taken for my food allergic kids. And, yes, you may not see peanuts in the kitchen, but there are items on the menu that are NOT safe for people with peanut or tree nut allergies. I felt like he’d dug his own grave with the diatribe he gave me about how well he’s trained and all the precautions the kitchen takes and that he’d realize what a huge blunder he’d made, but he still didn’t get it and he didn’t even apologize. I left it alone but told him to please, next time, enter the food allergy information into the system.
And now I need to alert corporate to two things: the issue with the website and the staff at our local restaurant who, unapologetically, made big mistakes. I don’t know where this leaves us. I do think that my kids can still safely eat at Red Robin, but I think if we have another experience like that again, especially with the same staff members, I won’t be able to stay as calm as I did last night.
But this experience did teach me to never let my guard down, even at places we’ve visited time and again. Please continue to be diligent when you eat out too!
Let me know what you think. How would you have dealt with the situation?
Update: Please see my post here with Red Robin’s response.