Nearly 20 years ago, chef Joel Schaefer created the renowned food allergen safety program at Walt Disney World, pioneering the accommodation of special diets in the food service industry.

“It became a passion of mine, and I wanted to continue to learn more about it and create great experiences for anybody that wanted to dine out or to travel,” Schaefer said. “I remember going to culinary school and they didn’t even talk about food allergies.”

Allergies in the limelight

But progress has been made in the last 10 to 15 years. Besides new labeling laws and food safety initiatives, more chefs are paying attention, using dedicated equipment and training staff to properly handle food to reduce allergen contamination.

“The biggest thing is communication. It’s not assuming you know what the guest’s communicating to you in the kitchen. It’s communicating with the guests on a one-on-one basis to really find out what the issues are.”

“The biggest thing is communication,” Schaefer said. “It’s not assuming you know what the guest’s communicating to you in the kitchen. It’s communicating with the guests on a one-on-one basis to really find out what the issues are.”

Customers speak up

Diners are also taking more responsibility for their own needs.

“Do your research,” Schaefer advises. “You have to plan ahead, and when you go on vacations, you have to plan further ahead.” Reward those restaurants that make accommodations. “Chefs are seeing that if they don’t learn more about food allergies and accommodate guests with special dietary requests, it can affect their business,” Schaefer adds. “Everybody should be able to go out to eat at a restaurant with our friends and family without worrying about what we’re eating.”