Vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, kosher, halal, pescetarian, fruitarian, lacto vegetarian, ovo-lacto-vegetarian: Planning food and beverage is more complex than ever, given the growing number of dietary restrictions. And for guests with food allergies, a meal even may have life or death consequences. 

“Anaphylaxis is an ugly thing,” says Lori Shepard, executive chef and owner of Simply Scrumptious Catering in Dexter. “You never want to have to call an ambulance in the middle of your event.” 

Fortunately, accommodating folks with food allergies is not difficult, even when you have thousands of guests at an event. For one, they’re fully aware of the consequences of not having their needs met.

“Those people will find you, seek you out and let you know,” says Josef Huber, corporate chef of the Amway Hotel Corporation in Grand Rapids

Chefs like Scott Sundermeyer, the executive chef at Cobo Center, have eliminated major allergens like tree nuts and peanuts from their menus. Instead of offering a pecan-encrusted fish, for example, Sundermeyer encrusts in potato for a similar look and texture. Huber likewise has replaced wheat flour in sauces with brownrice flour and corn starch, which has made most of his menu items gluten-free. 

Still, making special meals requires careful planning and preparation that may involve the attention of the entire kitchen staff before any other foods are prepared, in order to prevent cross-contamination. A person with celiac disease, for instance, may get ill if food is cooked on the same grill or cut with the same knife as foods that contain gluten, says Shepard, who has gluten sensitivity issues herself. 

In some cases of severe dietary restrictions, Sundermeyer employs a strict chain of command, delegating one chef to cook the special meal and one server to bring it to the guest.

“If you know ahead of time, [accommodating those guests] is not a big deal,” Huber says. 

Food Fight

It’s when people request special meals without giving advance notice that throws a finely tuned kitchen into chaos. 

This often happens at galas and fundraisers where companies buy tables and planners don’t know who’s attending or what their dietary restrictions are until they’re seated. Another pet peeve: guests who decide on the spot to be vegetarian or gluten-free instead of eating the entrée they reserved. 

Gluten-free is more than 50 percent of the special meals requested at events, Huber says. “But I usually need zero gluten-free desserts.” 

Regardless, all dietary requests must be taken seriously. “If someone tells me they’re gluten-free, I don’t ask them if it’s a (lifestyle) choice; I just assume it’s because they need to be,” Shepard says.

Chefs work around these last-minute requests by preparing enough gluten-free and/or vegan meals to accommodate five to 10 percent of total attendees, while servers and kitchen staff sort out issues like a guest needing a cheesefree entrée or dairy-free salad dressing. Huber prepares double the number of requested special meals when shellfish is on the menu in order to accommodate guests with shellfish allergies.

Sometimes, depending on a group’s history, he’ll also hold back 10 percent of plates, serving them up as requested so he’s not left with 100 plated servings of beef filet because attendees changed their minds. 

Off-premise caterers like Simply Scrumptious face a bigger challenge, as they may not have game-time access to a full kitchen to prepare or modify special meals. If guests request gluten-free without any advance warning and the fish has been drenched in flour, they may end up eating salad and vegetables, Shepard says.

Count Carefully

Be aware: Special meal requests may cost you. 

Last year, Huber began charging clients for special meals prepared in addition to the original meal count. Preparing meals that don’t get eaten and then having to prepare others in their place is very costly, he says. He put his foot down after serving an extra 200 such meals at a gala for 2,000 to guests who didn’t request them in advance. The chargeback got the attention of gala planners: At their next event, requests for special meals dropped by about two-thirds. 

Shepard doesn’t charge more for making vegetarian meals but does when her team has to prepare multiple kinds of meals with dietary restrictions. A kosher meal also incurs an extra fee because it involves additional expenses in terms of ingredients and preparation, she says.

Despite the cost and frustration special requests can sometimes cause, it’s important to remember what can be at stake for attendees.

“It’s scary for someone with dietary restrictions to eat publicly,” says Lindsay Krause, senior meeting and event manager at Ferndale-based Special D Events and the mother of a child with life-threatening peanut and tree-nut allergies. Such individuals are at the mercy of catering staff, banquet staff and event planners. “Planners need to help keep them safe, and do so in a kind manner,” Krause says. 

Shepard agrees: “If [guests] were important enough to invite, then they’re important enough to treat with the respect that they need for their diets.” 

Food Allergies By the Numbers

25 percent of Americans eat gluten-free foods, a 67 percent increase from 2013. —Mintel, 2015

1 in 133 people suffer from celiac disease, an autoimmune response to gluten. —University of Chicago Medicine

60 percent of American adults say they restrict at least one nutritional component from their diet. —Harris Poll, 2014

15 million people in the United States have food allergies, including 9 million adults. —Food Allergy Research & Education

Every 3 minutes a food- allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room, for more than 200,000 visits per year. —Food Allergy Research & Education

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