Wednesday, February 17, 2016

When Restaurant Employees Endanger Customers

On Friday, February 5, 2016, my wife and I had one of those rare parental opportunities to go out to dinner. Not a long, fancy, dinner, mind you. No. No time for that. But we had time to go and get a burger together before going to our son’s Winter Drumline ensemble percussion performance.

A few months ago, a Smashburger restaurant opened near us. My son and I have been once or twice, but my wife hadn’t had an opportunity to go. She knows about Smashburger because we’ve eaten there in Louisville a few times (while attending cheerleading competitions) and so she has wanted to try the one near us. So we decided that would work well for us. Grab a good burger and then go to the percussion performance. What could go wrong with that plan?

When it was our turn to order, my wife, as she usually does, asked whether the burger was seasoned. Why did she ask this? Those of you who are regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware that my wife suffers from a rare illness. The details aren’t worth going into other than to say that certain (many) foods trigger what appears to be an allergic reaction (actually anaphylactic shock of differing severities). Thus, she needs to be aware — very aware — of the ingredients of the food she eats.

In response to her query about seasoning on the hamburger, the cashier said, “Just salt and pepper.” Unfortunately, all too often, we’ve seen restaurants where there were “hidden ingredients” in the food, and so my wife said to the cashier, “I have allergies. Are you sure the seasoning is just salt and pepper?” Often, in response to this sort of query, the restaurant employee will ask something like, “What are you allergic to?” and my wife will usually respond with something like, “Too many things to mention; it’s easier if you just tell me what’s in the food”. This is exactly what happened that night, and the cashier assured my wife that the seasoning was “just salt and pepper and a buttered grill”.

So my wife ordered a burger with goat cheese.

But after three bites she put the burger down and told me that something was wrong. Over time, she’s become hypersensitive to ingredients in her food that trigger an anaphylactic reaction. Within moments she had a massive rash on her chest and neck, her cheeks were flushed and warm, and she was beginning to feel very sick.

I noticed a man whose nametag identified him as the Assistant Manager. I called him over and asked him about the seasonings on the burger and explained that my wife appeared to be having an allergic reaction. I don’t think he was taking me particularly seriously at first. He wasn’t ignoring me, but I didn’t get the impression that he thought the situation was dire, either. He told me that he thought that the seasoning was just salt and pepper. I asked if he could check. I think he finally realized the gravity of the situation when I said that I really needed to know what was in the seasoning so that I could explain to the doctors if I had to take my wife to the emergency room.

The Assistant Manager walked back to the kitchen. When he returned a few minutes later, he told us that the seasoning was mostly salt and pepper with some garlic powder and onion powder, two of my wife’s biggest triggers. He apologized profusely, said that he’d been in the restaurant business for many years, and took allergies very seriously. And he gave me two $5 coupons and said that he hoped we’d try the restaurant again. As my wife got up to get some water, he once again told her how sorry he was and asked if there was anything he could do.

We left to attend the percussion performance. Sadly, we had to leave early. My wife was just too sick to stay, especially in that sort of environment (a high school gym). At least we were able to watch the first of our son’s two performances before we left. The rest of the evening was something that we’ve sadly grown accustomed to over the years, as she took virtually all of the medications that she can to help ward off the sort of severe reaction that would have landed her in an ambulance for a trip to the local hospital. Thankfully, since she’s been on her current drug regimen with the freedom to “double up” her dosing when triggering, we’ve managed to avoid what had, for a while, been annual trips to the emergency room (including emergency rooms in both Disney and Maui!). But it was a long, difficult night, that even included bringing our daughter back from a planned sleepover at around midnight (so that if we did have to go to the ER, our son wouldn’t wake up to find everyone gone).

I guess we should feel fortunate that she has learned how to exert some small degree of control over her illness when she triggers.

During all of this, I took to Twitter to both blast Smashburger (@smashburger) and to tell friends what had happened.

By Saturday morning, my wife felt much better, though the extra medicines that she had to take made her feel like she had a bad hangover.

Late on Saturday afternoon, I did receive a call from Smashburger’s Assistant Manager asking how my wife was, offering his renewed apologies, and explaining that there were discussions being held at the restaurant. I also received an email Saturday evening from a person who I believe is Smarshburger’s General Manager:

I want to personally apologize regarding your experience at Smashburger. Our customer satisfaction and safety is our top priority. I have personally spoken to my staff regarding the incident. I truly hope your wife is ok.  I would like to send you coupons and ask you to give us one more opportunity if willing.

If you give me your address I'll be more than happy to mail you coupons.

And, coincidentally, while typing this post (I wrote it last week, but held off publishing so that my wife could review it), I received a response from Smashburger’s Twitter account apologizing and asking me to direct mail them with more information.

But here is the really ironic thing: When I looked at Smashburger’s website, I discovered that they have an entire page dedicated to Nutrition and Allergens, including an interactive allergen menu. When I use that allergen menu and click on a few of my wife’s biggest triggers (onion, garlic, shellfish), the option for a burger tells us “no burger seasoning”! Seriously.

Am I particularly angry that the cashier didn’t know what was in the seasoning? No. I guess not. Though given that the place is called “Smashburger” and hamburgers are their prime focus, you’d think that employees, especially those who deal with customers and orders would know. But the idea that the cashier didn’t know how to handle a customer who made specific reference to allergies is very troubling, especially given that the chain has that interactive allergen menu. How hard would it have been to direct my wife’s attention to that menu (or to read the list of ingredients included in the seasoning that can be found via that interactive menu)? It is also quite troubling that the Assistant Manager didn’t know what ingredients were in the seasoning without having to ask.

I’m also a bit miffed at the notion of trying to apologize via coupons. A coupon is a great way to respond when a customer received poor service or the food isn’t prepared properly. A coupon is a great way to say “sorry” for a minor inconvenience. But when the situation was as serious as this one, when the ingestion of ingredients could have led to hospitalization (or fatality), then a coupon is … um … not the best response. Instead, I’d like to see Smashburger talk more specifically about the sort of training that all employees will receive about allergens and how to deal with customers who inquire about ingredients. I’m glad that the General Manager has “spoken to [his] staff” but I’d like to know what he told them, what he told the higher-ups in the corporate hierarchy (or franchise), and so forth. Perhaps, instead of offering me a coupon, Smashburger could make a contribution to a local hospital to help with treatment of illness caused by allergens (or to The Mastocytosis Society which helps fund research into my wife’s rare illness).

Hopefully some good will come from this. Hopefully, Smashburger’s employees will be more sensitive to allergies and to the problems that exposures to allergens can cause. Hopefully other restaurants and their staff will read about this experience and consider how they handle patrons will allergies. And hopefully, next time my wife — or anyone who suffers from allergies — inquires as to the ingredients in a particular dish, they will get a thorough and complete response.

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