When dining out crosses the line into dangerous, it's a game-changer. That's the situation for many families whose children have serious food allergies.
The number of children with clinical allergies to certain foods has been trending upward. The Centers for Disease Control reports that it increased 18% between 1997 and 2007.
For food producers, the federal government's labeling requirements have become more stringent. School districts must create guidelines and may exclude high-risk foods from cafeterias. However, the vast restaurant marketplace is not as highly regulated.
When four children in 100 have a food allergy, it's not feasible for restaurants to turn their backs on these issues. How are chefs in Madison dealing with them?
"We always try to accommodate allergy issues, and questions about them come up often," says Derek Lee, owner of Pizza Brutta on Monroe Street. Even so, he warns, "You have to be very careful what you say." Regarding the term gluten-free, for example, "No one can say they are gluten-free unless they actually have a separate facility."
Cross-contamination is one of most difficult things for restaurants to contend with. It happens when an allergen is not deliberately included in preparing food, but is still present, even in trace amounts, on something that touches the food - a utensil, a cutting board, a hand. Controlling this in a busy kitchen requires a special level of awareness and the ability to quickly change gloves, pans and utensils, all without missing other orders.
What can a parent do to get the best chance at a safe dining experience? "Get management involved so that what you're requesting really will get done," Lee advises.
Joey Connaughty, who oversees both Tex Tubb's Taco Palace and Monty's Blue Plate Diner, uses a different approach. Servers undergo a four-day training process, with one full day given over to food allergies and safely serving kids who have them.
"The moment we hear the words 'food allergy,' a huge chain reaction happens in the restaurant," Connaughty says. "We pride ourselves in being able to accommodate it."
Tubb's eschews peanuts or peanut oils, eliminating a power player, but takes other allergies and intolerances just as seriously. "We deal with it every day," says Connaughty. "Our regular customers with allergies are known to us." Cooks in Tubb's kitchen are prepared to clamp down on cross-contamination much as Pizza Brutta does.
The Roman Candle Sparkler in the Madison Children's Museum obviously has children as primary customers. "We try very hard to train our employees to be knowledgeable about all ingredients in our food," says co-owner Brewer Stouffer. "The one thing that's really tough for us is gluten, because we're pretty much a house of gluten."
Both Pizza Brutta and Roman Candle will bake a pizza on a gluten-free crust if it is brought in by a customer, although preventing cross-contamination in a pizza kitchen is not something they can guarantee.
The Great Dane at Hilldale estimates that 40% to 50% of its clientele are families with children; accommodating food allergies is familiar territory.
"Information from the parents is everything," says Brad Czachor, who has worked in the restaurant since 2006. "If we can get it right away, we have the best chance of helping you make a safe choice."
The full menu has been coded with a symbolic key to allergens present in the food, available upon request (although unfortunately the children's menu is not included in this key). When anyone comes into the Great Dane with an allergy issue, the first step is to notify the kitchen manager to discuss safe options, says Czachor. "A lot more of these questions are coming our way, and we're committed to dealing with it safely."
Allergen concerns can sometimes dictate a parent's choices in unwanted ways. "Big chains have a lot of policies in place that, theoretically, makes them safer," says Madison parent Jen Lucas, mother of a 7-year-old son who is allergic to peanuts. "We would prefer to eat from local businesses, and that has been a challenge."
Restaurants where English is not spoken in the kitchen can also be a great difficulty, several parents admitted, and that further limits cuisine and restaurant choices.
Rebecca Liggon has four children with food allergies. "We have three restaurants that we go to, because we've been there before and we've gone through all the steps with the restaurant already."
Most parents rely on a few known kitchens. Don't try out a new restaurant during peak business hours, as communications become rushed and there's less opportunity to conduct a full conversation. As Liggon says, "If I can't read a label, they can't eat it."
At Marigold Kitchen, in-house fabrication of almost everything on the menu means there aren't labels to read - but also means that staffers are familiar with the food and what goes into it. Kristy Schwinn, who's been with the restaurant for a decade, oversees the majority of foods coming in the door. "We're passionate about what we do, and we want everyone to enjoy it, no matter what their dietary restrictions," she says.
Schwinn notes that in Marigold's open kitchen, "we're all right here together," and food info never has far to travel.
Parents should gauge the responses of the service staff. If questions like "What's on your menu that's gluten-free?" or "Is there shellfish in the soup?" bring a deer-in-the-headlights look, you're probably in the wrong restaurant.
If your questions are answered directly, without hesitation but without haste, and you're asked to wait while more information is sought, things are looking good.