The Status Quo
People with food-related medical conditions are all too familiar with the experience of going out to a restaurant and asking staff if a food item has an irritant in it, then getting ambiguous, unconfident, and often incorrect information that could make them sick, and they may even be made fun of by restaurant staff for being “picky”. Not only is that experience humiliating, it means people have to play a game of Russian Roulette when they make a decision to trust restaurant staff about food allergens, and many opt to simply stay home rather than risk their health, causing them to miss out on experiences with their friends and family. We see this as an unconscionable way of treating our guests — it flies in the face of everything we believe in and strive to do at Prairie Dog. Inclusivity is one of our most important core values, and there is nothing less inclusive than failing to accommodate those with allergies.
That said, accommodating people with food-related medical conditions is not easy, if it were, everyone would have already mastered it. People can literally be allergic to anything, and their level of sensitivity can vary widely, while opportunities for cross-contamination are too numerous to list. One person can be allergic to gluten while another is allergic to a different protein from the same kernel of wheat, or a husk. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to allergies. So for a while early on, we really stumbled and often failed to get this right — we were overconfident in our approach and lacked the proper information, policies and protocols to do right by our guests (and staff, as you’ll see).
Prairie Dog Brewing is 100% Nut Free and Seafood Free
Mid 2019 saw an unfortunate incident where one of our bar staff, who was severely allergic to shellfish, become ill after another staff member brought some seafood from home and started to eat it at our bar on her lunch break. This forced the issue of allergies front and centre in our minds, and we recognized our prior failings and put allergies up at the top of our priority list.
Immediately, we made the call to become a nut free and fish/shellfish free facility, both for our staff and guests. The incredible severity that those allergens often pose, and for such a large number of people, meant it was the only way to go as an inclusive restaurant. That meant taking a hard look through all of our products, recipes and ingredients and rethinking them, including even our beer and guest alcohol, which many might overlook, for example:
- We had to replace our super-popular Cesar mix (contains shellfish) with a house-made vegan version, more like a V8
- We had to switch brands of some liqueurs and well liquor, like our Blue Curacao and gin.
- No more peanut butter or nut beers, either.
We also had to change our barbecue sauce recipes (no Worcestershire sauce, for example), and replace some of our merch, like soaps and beard oils, because they included nuts as ingredients. And finally, we had to start enforcing that guest birthday cakes and children’s snacks brought in by parents did not include nuts. We even went so far as to change our mouse trap bait! But this was just the first step in our plan.
Our Approach to Managing Allergy Information
The Allergy Codex holds the answers that you seek.
We believe that the person best suited to make a choice about what’s safe to eat is the person with the medical condition, but in order to make that decision, they need to be armed with accurate information. Our team have spent hundreds of hours meticulously combing through recipes and cataloging ingredients and allergy information for the most common allergens like peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, dairy, wheat, and egg, and logging all of the ingredients and trace allergens known to be part of our menu items into our “Allergy Codex” – a bible that we constantly refer back to anytime a guest has an allergy outside of the most common 8 listed above (which are all listed here on the website now). If a guest wants to know if a food items contains something like cinnamon (which happens surprisingly often), we can answer that question, although in may take a few minutes.
Allergens On Our Website
We’ve transferred information about the most common allergens (and a few less common ones) from our Allergy Codex onto our website as part of our menu items and other store products. When you scroll through our web store/menu, you’ll see icons representing common allergens superimposed over our product images to indicate that those menu items may contain that allergen either as an ingredient or at trace levels. Click into a product or menu item to view it’s web page, and you’ll see “Allergens” and “Trace Allergens” listed on the right hand side anytime one of the common allergens that we catalog could be present.
Allergen vs Trace Allergen
Because our guests have a variety of sensitivity levels to food allergens, we’ve divided allergen information into two categories — allergens and trace allergens. Whenever we list something as an “allergen”, that means we deliberately include that allergen as part of the recipe, so it may be present in higher levels (like egg or butter in a bread recipe). We list “trace allergens” in cases where foods are made with ingredients processed in facilities that also process those allergens, or where low-level cross-contamination may be possible (such as through use of our fryers). If you suffer from severe food allergies, or have a medical condition like Celiac disease, you are advised to pay close attention to trace allergens. Conversely, if you have a sensitivity or intolerance, you may have no issue consuming products that could contain trace levels of the irritant. The power is in your hands to make that decision.
Making an Order
If you have a food-related sensitivity or medical condition, inform our service staff as soon as you make your FIRST food/drink order (or include a comment for online orders), regardless of what you are ordering. This allows us to take extra precautions to prevent cross-contamination every step of the way between the kitchen, bar and your table. For example, you might order a gluten free cider without telling your server that you have a severe wheat allergy and think you’re safe, but the bartender or server could handle that glass with hands that just had beer spilled on them while they moved drinks onto trays, transferring those allergens onto your glass and fingers just before you eat with them.
How Your Allergy Gets Represented to Staff
Guests ordering food directly with a server or bartender in our dining room are associated with a “seat” in our Point of Sale system. If a guest tells us that they have a severe allergy or other food-related medical condition, we add a label to their seat that states something like “SOY ALLERGY”, in all-caps letters. Every time a server orders a drink or food item to your seat, the kitchen and bar staff will get a “chit”, or requisition slip, that includes the allergy text directly above the item being ordered, as pictured above.
What We Do Differently for Allergy Orders
- First and foremost, allergy information on a kitchen or bar chit causes our staff to think about your order and validate that everything on it is compatible with the listed allergy. Servers take the extra step of confirming with the kitchen that they see the allergy on the order.
- Staff in the kitchen will create an “allergy setup” to prepare any food items that are a part of your order, including brushing and flaming portions grills where items may be cooked, getting out a dedicated set of fresh utensils for all components required to make your item.
- Some food items may be “fired” differently for customers with allergies to further reduce cross-contamination. Cuts of barbecue meat may be taken off a new piece of meat to assure no contamination.
- Expo staff, who manage food coming out of the kitchen and going out to tables, will double-check food items to ensure that they were made according to the allergy spec.
- Food will be run out to the dining room customer separately from other items ordered at the same table to assure that it is not confused between seats or accidentally contaminated while being transported.
- At the table, the server or food runner will confirm with the guest that they were the ones with the allergy before delivering the order to the seat.
Maybe the above sounds like something we should do for every order, regardless of allergies, but an allergy order takes 5-10 minutes longer to prepare than with a typical setup, and costs us substantially more to make, so menu prices would have to rise another 25% before it would be feasible at scale (and most guests would be frustrated by the longer wait times).
We hope you understand the wait and appreciate what we’re doing to keep you safe. If you have any questions or comments, please let us know on social media @prairiedogbeer!