The other weekend I went with a friend and ate at P.F. Chang’s. For those of you who are familiar with the restaurant’s menu, it seems like an odd choice for my food allergies (peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, fish and shellfish). It’s Asian cuisine and most of the menu items contain some sort of nut or shellfish/fish ingredient. However, I’ve eaten at P.F. Chang’s since I was very young and I’ve always had an excellent experience. I became good friends with the Head Chef and then Assistant Owner of a local P.F. Chang’s in Colorado Springs so I knew what went on in the kitchen and what menu items could be prepared safely.
My favorite menu item is Crispy Honey Chicken – a very “play it safe” but delicious dish. I’ve eaten it dozens of times and never had any issue.
Anyway, we sat down and the waiter came over and introduced himself. He brought us menus and we ordered water for drinks. I knew what I wanted to order because of my allergies and I knew the dish would be safe. When he came back, I notified him of my food allergies. He told me that P.F. Chang’s has a “matrix” or print out of items on the menu that would be safe for me. He returned quickly with this print out and let us scan through it. I don’t know how this list is compiled, but it is most likely a list of dishes that “may contain” the allergens input. I never received clarity on it.
To my surprise, the Crispy Honey Chicken was not on the list, despite my eating of it a mere month or two before. There were probably only four or five items on the entire list. When the waiter returned, I notified him of the issue and he said he couldn’t do anything about it, nor could he assure that the item was safe. I went ahead with it anyway and ordered Crispy Honey Chicken. I knew it was safe and I had eaten it many times and very recently too. I simply asked him to notify the chef of my food allergies or put it in the system so they could prepare it separately from all the other food – something I know P.F. Chang’s does for food allergic customers.
The waiter said the chef couldn’t do that. They couldn’t guarantee the safety of my food or prepare it in an area away from the regular food. I was surprised and at this point a little scared. What if I couldn’t actually eat my “play it safe” dish? What if P.F. Chang’s had changed? Or, was it just this location that had different practices? I told the waiter to give me a few minutes to think about it.
I was mainly surprised because the Head Chef and Assistant Owner I knew from my youth made it very clear that the kitchen always has a separate area to prepare dishes for food allergic customers. I decided to take matters into my own hands and call the restaurant – from within the restaurant. I asked to speak to a manager. I told the manager: “Hi! I’m looking at coming to your P.F. Chang’s but I have severe food allergies. I’ve eaten at many P.F. Chang’s but I just wanted to check your practices. I know you have a matrix print out, but I was wondering if the chefs prepare food for customers like me in a separate area.” The manager confirmed! She told me that the chefs use separate pans and oils to prepare food for food allergic customers and I only would have to notify my waiter to put it into the system.
I was much happier at this point because I knew I could have a safe meal. I made sure the waiter had put it in the system when the meal was ordered (really, I double checked) so I could have a safe meal. The meal was delicious and safe and nothing went wrong.
Within a couple days, I called the restaurant back and spoke to a manager (a different one) and explained to him what had happened. I also made clear it wasn’t a big deal for me but that it could be an awful experience for a family who had never eaten at P.F. Chang’s. They would either be very scared or they would simply leave. He was deeply apologetic and told me he would have a deep conversation with the waiter about practices. The odd thing (for both the manager and I) was that the waiter was not new and was pretty familiar with the kitchens’ practices for food allergic customers. That aside, the manager sent me a $15 gift card and I’ll definitely be returning for more Crispy Honey Chicken.
I think there are a few important lessons from this adventure:
First, waiters can be wrong. They can also be right! I’ve had many positive experiences with waiters at restaurants, including P.F. Chang’s. Sometimes, however, they can be incompetent and unwilling to ask their manager or the chef. In those cases, you need to take matters into your own hands like I did to make sure you’re getting a safe meal.
Second, play it safe. I knew Crispy Honey Chicken was a safe dish even though the matrix didn’t have it. That’s a risk I took but given that I had eaten it a mere month before, it was a relatively safe risk. If you’re at a restaurant you’ve eaten at before with an incompetent waiter, eat something you’ve had before to play it safe. If you’re at a new restaurant, get something that looks like it is the least risky dish.
Finally, I think it’s very important to be patient. I could’ve lost it and gone after the waiter but I didn’t. Working it out and getting as much information is super important to understanding the situation at hand. Getting in touch with a superior (like a manager) also helps. Being patient makes sure that you are careful and deliberate in your decisions.
Overall, it wasn’t the best experience. I certainly had moments where I was unsure or scared that the food was not going to be safe but I had faith in the chefs in the back to keep it safe. Everything turned out well – and hey! I have a gift card of $15. Always good.