What Madison restaurants are doing to help parents with food issues

Allergy alert!

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.

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Time for New Year's 2015 resolutions

New Year's resolutions are hard to keep. In fact, something around 90% of people fail every year! But one way that you can increase your odds of victory is to get other people involved.

Mama Madison: Talking about race with Families for Justice

Like many parents, I look at the wide world around my kids and do my best to prepare them for life. We talk about working hard, being kind and responsible, Internet safety, stranger danger, and the (gulp) birds and the bees. But what about a topic such as race?

Mama Madison: Checking it twice

If you're like me, looking around your house in the weeks before Christmas will probably have you convinced that the last thing your kids need to find underneath the tree is a pile of new toys.

Mama Madison: Managing holiday lists

I spend a lot of time talking to my kids about how lucky we are to have what we have. Though our house is tiny and our van is unequipped with automatic doors, we have all we could ever need, and a lot of what we want.

Girls on the Run of Dane County marks a decade of changing young lives

On the evening of Nov. 6, a throng of people gathered at Monona Terrace. They were there to attend an impressive anniversary shindig, but the real buzz of excitement centered on the event's guest of honor.

Mama Madison: Mom dates are hard

You may call them "play dates," but I like the term "mom dates," especially since my kids are still too young to really care that there's another small person to squabble over toys with.

Mama Madison: No judgments with No Excuse Mom

If there is an excuse for not working out and eating healthy, I have used it: I don't have time. I'm too tired. I'll start tomorrow. I'm no good at this, I give up. I don't know where to start. Yes, I have used all of these and more.

Mama Madison: Introducing kids to your CSA box

At almost a year old, my kids are in the blissful stage of life where they'll eat nearly anything that I put in front of them (at least as long as it doesn't require much in the way of molar action).

Mama Madison: Changing tables, changing times

My family recently went through something that we have not experienced in over eight years. We have become a household that no longer harbors a crib or a changing table.

From museum to school with MMoCA

"There really is no wrong way to do it." That's how Madeline, age 13, describes creating artwork. She and her classmates at Prairie View Middle School in Sun Prairie are honing their artistic skills by participating in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's Art on Tour program.

Mama Madison: Coping with toddlers in a Wisconsin winter

I'm having trouble enjoying the season, because I can't keep myself from thinking about the miserable weather that's sure to be following close on the heels of the crisp, pleasant fall we've been having. I am not at all emotionally prepared to be the parent of two toddlers during a Wisconsin winter.

Mama Madison: Melissa Wardy pushes positive messages

I've always been a supporter of companies that empower women and girls, and when the creator of such a company is a fellow Wisconsinite, I get even more excited. When Melissa Wardy of Janesville got fed up with stereotypes found in clothing for girls, she started her own company.

Mama Madison: Three cheers for reading at the Wisconsin Book Festival

Do you have a little reader or an aspiring teenaged writer in your house? If so, you may want to venture to the Wisconsin Book Festival this weekend, to whet their appetite for wonderful words as well as your own.

Mama Madison: What's in a name?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I had two names picked out. Upon her arrival we had not yet come to a conclusion on what that name would be. Everyone told us that when we saw her we would just know. We didn't.

Mama Madison: Eugster's is more than just a visit to the farm

At age 10 months, my kids have seen the zoo a lot already. I was a zoology major in college, and I have something of a zoo addiction still, so the twins (and their dad) are more or less condemned to a future rife with zoo visits.

Help for home-schoolers at the Madison Mentor Center

Home-schooling can be a lonely proposition. Even as a college professor, Juliana Hunt remembers struggling to find support to home-school her now-grown daughter. "I was always hoping to find like-minded people who were in the same position as me," she says. "I know that children learn best through a give-and-take, question-and-answer process of teaching and learning, but where do you find mentors who can make that happen?"

Mama Madison: Yummy Sprout is a wonderful resource

After sleep patterns, I think the next biggest parenting concern I have and hear about revolves around the topic of food. How can I make sure my kids are eating enough vegetables? Did I pack them a lunch that is healthy enough? What can I feed them after school that doesn't come from a box? How many gripes am I going to get about the dinner I'm about to prepare?

Mama Madison: Tips and tricks for baby air travel

As far as places to embark on Baby's First Air Travel go, Dane County Regional Airport is a pretty sound choice, especially at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. My biggest fear was that my nine-month-old son would start screaming in the airport; my second biggest fear was that my son would start screaming and some of my former Epic colleagues would be around to hear it.

Mama Madison: Apple-picking time

The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.

Mama Madison: Baby feeding recommendations

I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?