Cheerless in Boston: Coping with Food Allergies

On a recent trip to Boston, I stayed near its famous Quincy Market, home to multiple restaurants and assorted kitschy vendors.   As a person with allergies to fish, shellfish, and nuts, I am experienced at navigating the challenges of eating out, but I expected to have a particularly easy time in Boston, one of the more progressive cities in the U.S.  I couldn’t have been more mistaken—or frustrated.   Here is a rundown of my first night at Quincy Market:

Restaurant #1:  Cheers:  Yes, it’s a shameless tourist trap, but I wanted to dine in the company (or spirits) of Sam, Diane, Norm, and the gang.  But no, they could not accommodate a fish/seafood allergy—and they couldn’t have been less empathetic—or cheery—about it.   Where was Frasier when I needed him to console me?

Restaurant #2: Durgin Park:  As usual, I declared my food allergies to the waiter, whose response was inspired:  “So don’t order fish, nuts, or seafood and you’ll be fine,” he said.  I was sure a manager would be more informed about handing food allergy requests but his solution was nearly as inspired. “I’ll tell the chef to wear gloves,” he offered.  Never mind that my glove-handled meal could be fried in a heaping pot of anaphylactic-inducing oyster sauce.

With two strikes and a third surely on the way, I settled for a slice of pizza, not exactly what I’d been looking forward to.  But at least it was, for me, allergy-friendly.

After these sobering experiences, I figured I deserved a  dessert uplift and was thrilled to discover a Ghiradelli ice cream parlor along the strip. I’d previously enjoyed their decadent sundaes in Florida and California.

Once again, I dutifully noted my nut allergy and anticipated a “no problem” response. Many ice cream establishments will use unopened containers to avoid cross-contamination issues or at least offer to thoroughly wash the scooper. They’ll usually tell you that it’s not a guarantee that there will be no cross-contamination, but it’s a managed risk that many patrons, like myself, will take to enjoy a little decadence now and then.

But the staff at Ghiradelli refused to do anything to address my nut allergy, including washing the scooper.  In short, they refused to serve me.  I suppose that a request to wash the scooper because I didn’t want the residue of mint chocolate chip ice cream adulterating my pristine scoop of vanilla would have been okay, but asking to wash a scooper for a food allergy? Apparently, that is not the correct Jeopardy question.  “Company policy,” said the server, frostily.

To verify the server’s position, I contacted Ghiradelli.  Here is their corporate response (my translation in italics):

We strive to give each guest a great experience with our brand.  The handling and communication of nuts and other allergens is a critical store level responsibility of ours and a complex one.   Translation:  Accommodating a food allergy can be a tough nut to crack and we just don’t want to deal with it anymore.    

We now have a policy in place at our stores that guides our employees to no longer communicate or agree to any specific steps to guests that we would undertake to avoid allergen contamination.  The policy instructs our employees to communicate the list of allergens that are known to be used in our fountain menu items, and that due to possible cross contamination of the common equipment and work stations used, our fountain items could contain any of these allergens.  Translation: You got a nut allergy—tough boogies.  See note above.

The sole motivation behind our allergen policy is concern for our guests’ safety and health.  Translation: In addition to our boundless concern for your health and welfare, our high-priced lawyers forbid us from assuming any liability whatsoever (even you are willing to take a risk), so please refer to our tough boogies memo.

Okay, I get that food establishments have significant challenges in addressing the multiple food allergies, sensitivities, intolerances, and preferences that patrons walk in with.  But those of us with food allergies want a little whipped cream and a cherry in our lives sometimes too.

Perhaps some compromises are in order, if possible.  For instance, Ghiradelli could have some nut-free ice cream flavors available that don’t require preparation in shared areas. Think ice cream on a stick or pre-packaged containers with wooden spoons.  It may not be a sundae, but I’d still walk away feeling cheery.

Even if it is simply not possible for an establishment to maintain an allergen-free environment, a little empathy goes a long way.

No lawyers required for that.

About Mitchell Weitzman

Mitchell Weitzman is an attorney who writes about empathy, character, and culture for adults and children. He is the author of The Rose Temple: A Child Holocaust Survivor's Vision of Faith, Hope, and Our Collective Future and founder of Legacy Times: Commemorative Story Portraits.