Hold the Allergens: How Queen Mother Café Does Takeout Safely for Guests with Food Allergies and Intolerances
According to Food Allergy Canada, more than 3 million Canadians – that’s 7.5% of the population – report having at least one food allergy. And the prevalence only seems to be increasing.
The impact of food allergy is far greater, with an estimated 50% of Canadian households either directly or indirectly affected. For people with food allergies, eating out can be a challenge at best. Takeout adds another layer of stress when you’re not sure if the person on the receiving end – and everyone else along the food chain – gets it. We sat down with Sarah Henning, Kelly St. John and Andre Rosenbaum, owners of iconic downtown Toronto restaurant Queen Mother Café, to find out how they do takeout so well for people with food allergies and intolerances and other dietary restrictions like celiac disease.
How long has Queen Mother been a fixture in Toronto?
Since 1978! It was our 43rd birthday on October 26th.
And you’re still going strong!
Yes, we’re definitely trying to keep up with the times and making adjustments as we go.
Speaking of keeping up with the times, in the past year and a half, there’s been a big shift to takeout during the pandemic. Was takeout something that Queen Mother was used to doing?
Prior to the pandemic, we did very little takeout. We were primarily focused on the dining experience. From time to time, we had regulars who would call in orders and pick them up as they passed by, but we didn’t have any delivery services. So, takeout was a whole new thing for us and it took a little while to figure out this brand-new business. It certainly came with its challenges, but with everybody wanting the business to survive, we knew we had to adopt it.
How much of your business now is takeout?
Between 15 and 20 percent. In the summer when things opened back up, we thought it would slow down much more. But people seem to have adopted takeout because it’s still going strong. Learning to do takeout and indoor dining at the same time was a bit of an adjustment as well. But if you want it and you want to do a good job, you have to figure it out—and that’s what we did.
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Have you seen a rise in food allergies over the years?
We’ve definitely seen a rise in the number of food allergies over the years. We receive multiple modifications due to food allergies now on a daily basis.
What are the most common food allergies among your customers?
Peanuts, shellfish, dairy and gluten are the primary ones. The first thing the staff is trained to do is when somebody says, “no shrimp,” for instance, the next question is always: Is it a preference or an allergy? Then we can dive a little deeper as to whether we need to let them know that we have shrimp in the kitchen so we cannot guarantee no cross-contamination or, if we can just leave the shrimp out of their order.
I personally know that you cater very well to people with celiac disease who have to eat gluten-free for health reasons. What was the impetus for that?
Kelly has had celiac for years. That’s made us more aware and vigilant as to how items can be prepared to be safe and how to communicate to customers which items are the safest. It’s about being educated and keeping your staff educated and knowing exactly where and how food is being produced, all of the ingredients in each item, and which items can be modified.
Kelly created an ingredient list for each item on the menu. We have multiple food allergy ingredient list binders so the staff can be very thorough when somebody has an allergy and steer them in a different direction if they can’t have a certain item. It’s important that the staff all know the ingredients in each item, and if they don’t know, that they’re able to reference it.
Do you have a specific point person for takeout?
Yes, we now have a trained designated takeout person on every shift for the front of house. When it comes to training this person, you have to have faith and you also have to really keep an eye on them. I’ve worked with them sometimes for weeks before I felt that they were comfortable on their own to do takeout.
The takeout person informs the kitchen about any allergies. It’s important that we have that one person who is responsible and takes responsibility and is thorough with each order that comes in through the different platforms. You just need one person who knows the menu and knows what we can and cannot do in terms of modifications.
This person needs to know the follow-up questions to ask. So, in terms of gluten, for example, is it an intolerance or is it celiac? There’s a difference. Our staff needs to know the difference between the severity of allergies and intolerances, in terms of cross-contamination.
If a customer has an anaphylactic allergy to peanuts, we caution them that peanuts are in food items that we make and we cannot safely recommend that they order anything off the menu. We’d rather lose a customer in that sense than have them have a reaction. We are very honest about what we can do safely and what we don’t feel comfortable doing, and it’s at the guest’s risk. We say “guest” even when we’re referring to a takeout order.
Is it trickier to deal with food allergies when you’re doing takeout as opposed to when guests are dining in-house?
All guests deserve the same thoroughness. When customers are dining in-house, we ask the table if there are any allergies we need to know about. But that’s hard with takeout unless people phone in to place their order, then it’s easier to have that conversation. If people order online, we have to have faith that they’ve read the menu. Luckily, all of our staff is trained on modifications. With takeout, we write on the bag as well on each individual container that there is no peanut, shrimp, gluten, whatever the allergy is, so our guests feel comfortable enjoying their food and not worrying that they’re going to be sick from it.
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So, it’s best for guests with food allergies to order over the phone instead of online?
The best is for them to call us and let us know that they have a food allergy. Even if they’re ordering through a delivery service, it’s a good idea to call and speak to the takeout person first. Sometimes it can be challenging if we get an online order that just says, “no shrimp.” In that case, we would call the guest and ask if it’s a shellfish allergy, if they’re OK with oyster sauce, or is it just a shrimp allergy. We have repeat customers and because we’ve called them once or twice just to verify, they started putting in their notes: “no shrimp, not an allergy.”
It’s very reassuring when restaurants do that, so thank you! Especially when you’re doing takeout and you’re not sure if anything was lost in translation somewhere along the line.
There are times when we can’t get a hold of a customer who has ordered online and we have to make a judgment call as to whether or not we’re going to accept an order. For instance, if they write in the notes “no peanuts” and don’t specify if it’s an allergy. That’s another challenge with takeout—we can’t immediately ask customers the follow-up questions. So sometimes we leave them long-winded messages in the bag letting them know if they have questions before they eat to contact the restaurant. But, if we’re unable to communicate with them, we use the same precautions.
Sometimes people don’t read the full descriptions on the menu, and with takeout, if they haven’t read the menu, they’re going to be very disappointed, and that reflects badly on the business. So, we all have a part when it comes to takeout. We hope that customers will let us know if something is an allergy.
As time has gone on, some of the takeout platforms have improved the way the notes show up. In the beginning, some of the notes were not necessarily prominent when they should have been the most prominent. But now any special instructions are more prominent on the platform and are hard to miss. Our designated takeout person makes sure that they look at every single word on every single order. And if they have a question, they always ask me. But most of the time I am very confident that they know how to deal with allergies.
Is there a dedicated area where you handle takeout for special dietary requests?
In an ideal world, we’d love to have a large enough kitchen with a separate area where we can prepare those things. Having said that, we do make sure that all surfaces in the kitchen are clean and that we’re using new utensils and pots and pans for each order. Staff is constantly washing their hands and everything is constantly being wiped down. Knock on wood, we do a pretty good job being careful. I really do have faith that even places with small kitchens, if they care and are thorough, can be successful at keeping things as allergen-free as possible.
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It sounds like communication between the front of the house and the kitchen is really a big part of that success.
Communication is the biggest part—that everybody is on the same page and nobody gets tired of however many times they are asked about the same pad Thai. Everyone has the same goal—to provide people with safe meals—so no matter how many times we ask the same question and go over things, everyone is happy to inform each other. If somebody in the kitchen misses something, there are so many different levels where it can be caught before it gets to the customer, and we try our hardest to make sure that happens.
When it comes to food allergies, there are so many things to think about. It starts with getting the order. Then the takeout person has to ring it in properly. Then that person verbally communicates the order and any allergies to the kitchen. Everything has to be labelled when the food comes out, and the person who took the order has to go over the entire order to make sure everything is labelled properly and the bag is labelled. It takes a lot of people to be on the same page and it’s very thorough.
Are there extra costs associated with catering to people with food allergies?
We use tamari instead of soy sauce for gluten-free orders and we have a vegetarian oyster sauce so vegetarians can have pad Thai that tastes richer than it would without it. All of those things are more expensive, so there is a little cost associated on our end. But we haven’t charged the customer for that added cost to this point.
Is there special packaging or labelling involved for the food allergy orders?
Food allergies are listed on the food containers and on the paper bag the food is packed in, so if the order is for someone with a gluten allergy, we write “gluten-free” on the bag. Also, if they ordered a variety of items and something does contain gluten, we write “this contains gluten” on those specific containers so they know what they can and cannot eat. It’s important if somebody wants to have a bite of something else that they know it is safe for them. Once that bag leaves us, we have no control over what the customer does. So, if we can put a caution like “do not eat, not gluten-free,” we are happy to take the time to do so we can have safe and happy customers.
QUEEN MOTHER’S TOP 3 TIPS FOR SAFE FOOD ALLERGY TAKEOUT
(1) Train your staff to take food allergies very seriously and respond to them attentively.
It is important that the servers know the difference between allergies and intolerances and that they know the correct questions to ask. Having people who care and are thorough is so important for takeout.
(2) Create an extensive and complete allergy list for menu items.
This should include an allergy list for ingredients as well (such as soy sauce, fish sauce, coconut milk). The list must be consulted by front of house and the kitchen. Make it very accessible so staff can find what ingredients are in each dish, then they can reference that and give guests a specific and educated response.
(3) Set up a number of stages of screening the order before sending it out.
For example, received by the order taker, in writing and verbally between the order taker and kitchen expeditor when sent to the kitchen for making, confirm again verbally between the kitchen and the packager, and, finally, notes on the dishes for the customer.
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