There’s a local-ish gourmet burger chain we go. They have a smattering of locations within an hour’s drive, but there’s one location in particular where we’ve eaten a handful of times as a family. We’re not there weekly or anything, but as noted in previous posts, our stomping grounds are limited and we are pretty damn cautious, so going somewhere a few times a year is a big deal.
I can’t remember how I found out they could accommodate my daughter’s food snaffoos. I think we’d heard that some places have dedicated fryers to accommodate gluten free consumer demand and I called to check. My daughter, like many kids, will happily eat fries as a meal. (Note: If you’re going to judge me as a parent for that, you can go away now.)
When I called, I found out that their burgers are all beef, no binders, and that there was also a gluten free, vegan bun. The angels sang and trumpets played and we took the whole family in, without an extra packed meal.
We followed our standard allergy family dining out protocol:
- Call ahead, talk to the manager, and confirm the options (if there are any). Be SUUUUUUUPER friendly.
- Let them know when you’ll be coming. Go early so they won’t be rushed or distracted with the order while prepping, and give them time to prep an area or clean stuff off for you. (Theoretically…gotta put a little faith in the fact that you’ve just told them your two year old could die and that they don’t want that.) Be SUUUUUUUPER friendly.
- When you arrive, ask again for the manager and let them know that you called ahead. Confirm the allergy list with them and let them know you appreciate any extra effort their staff makes to accommodate your needs. Show them your beautiful daughter (Do this only if she’s in a good mood and adorable. If she’s hangry and being a turd, send your partner with her to the bathroom until you’re seated.). Be SUUUUUUUUUPER friendly.
- Thoroughly wipe down the table and chairs where your allergic kid will be sitting with three separate wipes. Accept the “What’s up with that?” looks from other customers and the “I was visibly cleaning that as you approached.” look from the server, with a shrug and a smile. Make a lame “it’s not you it’s us” joke if anyone is in ear shot or in danger of eye strain from rolling them so hard.
- When your server arrives re-list the allergies. Show them your beautiful daughter (who is now sweetly colouring and singing itsy-bitsy spider after your partner has slipped her a graham cracker to soften the hangriness). I also carry the list on a pocket sized piece of paper, along with all the terrible things that can happen, and the emergency procedure to follow if they do. Give this to the staff. I know they could write this down, but it makes me feel better knowing that I’m not relying on someone else’s attention span or handwriting. I also feel the consequences and the emergency procedure being printed, but not spoken (more than once) really hammer the point, in a deliciously passive aggressive kind of way. Again, be SUUUUUUUPER friendly.
- When ordering, ask again about everything your kid is going to eat. Ask if the server would mind double checking with the cooking staff about any food being prepared, and to double check the ingredients on anything that’s premade. Continue to be SUUUUUUUPER friendly.
- When the food arrives, smile, look apologetic, and say “I’ve just gotta ask again…” and make sure your allergic kid is getting what they’re supposed to be getting.
- If all goes well, leave a good tip at the end of the meal. Ask to speak to the manager and let them know that the server was great, that the food was appreciated, and that the extra effort didn’t go unnoticed. Of course, wrap it up by being SUUUUUUPER friendly. My feeling on this is that we want more places to be willing to accommodate and we want more people to not be dicks about it. Make them want you back.
This may seem a little elaborate if you’re not in this mess on a day-to-day basis, but going out is an event for our kids and it’s worth the effort. Quality of life, don’t shut me in type-thing.
The catch, of course, is when it doesn’t work. Or even worse, when you think it worked, but maybe it didn’t.
Let’s go back to the burger place. The first time we went, we were extra cautious and the experience was pretty new for our daughter. She was a little overwhelmed by the people, the bustle, and the thematic accents in the décor. She mostly ate fries and a bit of the ketchup soaked burger. All was well. The next time, she ate more of the burger, but who knows how much food actually gets INTO a two-year-old compared to what gets splattered AROUND a two year old.
The third time she ate most of the burger and all seemed to go well. Unfortunately, a few hours later she complained that her back hurt (daughter-speak for the sharp itchiness of a reaction as it pops up on her torso). She was fussy and fidgety and farting up a storm. Hives appeared. We dosed her up with antihistamine and things cleared up. We checked on her throughout the night to make sure nothing else flared up.
We went step-by-step through the meal in our heads. Did we touch her fries with our cheese-burger-y hands? Did her brother’s chocolate milk somehow splash across the table? We’d been so careful, but there’s always something you miss.
We chalked it up to good old cross-contamination and accepted that we weren’t going to get a definitive answer. Everything should have been clear, but it hadn’t and we took the blame.
This weekend, we returned to the restaurant, followed the procedure, and placed an order with the usual apologies (I know we shouldn’t have to, but we do it anyway) and requests to double check. This time, unlike the others, the server walked back over to us with a binder and showed us an ingredient list.
Duh duh dun!
Turns out, the gluten free buns are dairy free, but include egg. Not vegan. Not cool. We’d gotten both super lucky and super unlucky the first few times we’d eaten there. Lucky that our daughter hadn’t eaten more of the bun, lucky that her reaction was mild, but unlucky that the server and staff we’d spoken with hadn’t check this binder, which was clearly laid out and intended to answer exactly this kind of question.
Playing devil’s advocate, it is possible that the ingredients had changed, that the binder didn’t exist last time (maybe they’d updated procedures), or that something else had gone awry. I’ve worked in food service, I get it.
We thanked our server whole-heartedly for doing the extra checks and ordered the burger without the bun and fries for our daughter. The meal went well, everyone was happy and no hives appeared before bed time.
There was, however, barfing at 2am. Lots and lots of vomit.
And THIS is the hard part.
It is highly unlikely that my daughter’s impression of Linda Blair had anything to do with the dinner that she’d eaten, other than the fact that it came back up for a second showing. There are bugs and flu and all manner of gastro-intestinal horror going around daycare and school. My partner had been sick just days before. She did not have hives, or swelling, or any other symptom to indicate that it was a reaction. However, she also did not have a fever, or aches, or diarrhea, or any other symptom to indicate that it was a virus. Whatever it was, it came and went, and she was starving and only a little groggy from the sleep disruption, within hours of it occurring. No antihistamines or epinephrine needed. (Thankfully!)
There is no evidence to indicate that my daughter came into contact with anything that would harm her at the restaurant. This time, the server had saved our butts by doing what she was supposed to do. She was thorough and attentive. We took every precaution that we could reasonably take.
But…the seeds of doubt are there. We do not and cannot know that it wasn’t something she ingested. Every time she vomits, our automatic assumption is that it’s a reaction. If she gags while she’s throwing up (she’s really very bad at it and makes horrible noises and faces because it’s just a lot of work), we run for the epi pen and prepare to dial 911. We wake her in the night as we shine our phones on her back and belly and face to make sure there aren’t any hives, and that her lips don’t look swollen. In practice, we have to assume that vomit is the first sign of something that can get bad pretty fast.
There is always, though remote, a chance that whatever caused her to purge her system, came from dinner. We thought we could be pretty confident with this particular restaurant, but there was a decent screw-up/oversight those first couple times, that we just learned about, that leaves a bad taste. In the words of every parent at some point: I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.
We are well aware that we’re taking a risk when we’re out. Some allergic families don’t take that risk, but for us, it’s important to try. The reality is that we have to trust others (to a point) and that from time to time, someone will let us down. If we don’t try, then people will continue to say “then just don’t go out” and nothing will ever change for families like ours. It is also a reality that there are more and more families like ours out there. Gotta blaze that trail!
What I am pissed about, is that our list of places we can be at ease just got shorter. We’ll likely go back to the burger place. We know what to watch for and what to ask for (the binder!). We have good reason to believe that the service and the food the last time we were there was on point. Due diligence was done and we got what we needed and paid for.
But it’s never going to be the same.
I’m always going to feel a little off and a little suspicious, and every other restaurant is going to have to that much harder to show me I can feel good feeding my kid there. I’m still going to be SUUUUUUUPER friendly, because I want to reward restaurants and individuals that are even trying to accommodate our needs, but I’m going to dig deep into my nerd-dom to sum things up…
“The seed of doubt was there, and it stayed, and every now and then sent out a little root. It changed everything, to have that seed growing.” – Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game