What would someone say to you if you went to Don Pablo’s Mexican Restaurant with a bean, rice, wheat, dairy, and soy digestive allergy? They would say, “Why would go there? There isn’t anything on the menu that you can eat! You’re crazy!”
Well, I would be if we had airborne reactions to those foods. But we don’t. We are also okay if other foods are being prepared in the same kitchen. (Disclaimer: Do not go out to eat at restaurants where airborne or cross-contamination could risk a life-threatening food reaction). Also, most restaurants have meat and veggies and spices, and I like to put one up to the challenge to see if it’s a place we don’t have to put on our mental “nope list” when we are traveling, hungry, and needing sustenance. If we’re lucky, accommodations will be made with a good attitude. If we are extra lucky, we’ll run into a place that has a Restaurant Manager or a Kitchen Manager that understands the seriousness of our son’s condition and is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure he feels included and part of the experience. This is exactly what happened at our recent visit to Don Pablo’s.
You see, it isn’t always about merely consuming a safe food, it’s about being able to sit down in a Tex-Mex or Mexican restaurant and smell the aroma of cumin, listening to a bit of Mariachi music, seeing the colors, decor, and change of scenery, and feeling the vibe of a vibrant and bustling Mexican restaurant. Going out to eat is more than just a meal, it’s a time to bond and relax and experience a meal together.
In our case of going to Don Pablo’s, the Manager pleasantly surprised us with excellent service. Not only did he have the appropriate attitude toward our special order, he made us feel like we were like any other restaurant guest. In fact, probably more like VIPs. He expressed a genuine concern and interest in helping us have a good experience. I explained how it must look for us to bring our son with a dairy, wheat, rice, soy, and bean allergy to a Mexican restaurant. He did admit that he wondered and we both laughed, but then I went on to explain that we know what my son can have and that he loves a good plate of cumin-spiced chicken fajitas and the ambiance of Don Pablo’s. I told him that we usually don’t get to go out to eat because of his allergies, particularly a Mexican restaurant. The Manager really listened to my story, talked with us and developed a relationship with us. He gave our son a high five and also made him feel like a part of the conversation.
To add an even higher level of service, he said he would personally prepare our son’s meal of chicken fajitas to make sure it was safe and that it was tasty. After he headed to the kitchen, I was so happy that I was near (or at) happy-tears. It’s so rare to be a multiple-food-allergy family and be treated this well.
This Manager was careful to cook our son’s fajitas only in animal fat (since one of the hardest things for us to avoid is soy-based cooking oil) and he added spice for flavor and beautiful pan roasted veggies. For a side dish: a fresh cut fruit salad. He even came back and asked if certain fruits were okay. When our entrees were finished, he and the server brought all of the entrees to us at the same time. This particular detail meant a lot. At most other places, they tend to bring out out the regular entrees first while my hungry child waits another 10-15 minutes for his special meal to be prepared, furthering his feeling of exclusion that much more.
Our meal was excellent, but more importantly, my son’s fajitas tasted just like they are supposed to! As we finished up, paid our ticket and headed out, he gave us his business card and told us we could always call and ask any questions or for any help with future meals. We were truly Wow’ed by his service and grateful to walk out happy rather than frustrated. If our experience at that particular Don Pablo’s is a testament to their customer service philosophy at all of their chain restaurants, then I can do nothing but promote them. That kind of customer service philosophy and attitude really makes a difference in people’s lives.
When it seems like years and years since we were able to just order off the menu and get great service, we really appreciated having an experience like that. For a brief moment in our food-allergic lives, we felt like we were in the same category as all of the normal restaurant patrons who can order anything off of the menu. And while we’ll always have to do a special order anytime we decide to go out to eat, we know where we can get a great safe meal and be treated like we are just as important as every other guest.
My recommendation to other food-allergic families is is to stay positive and develop relationships with your local Restaurant Owners, Managers, and Kitchen Managers. Obviously, avoid going out to eat if there is potential for a life-threatening to highly sensitive exposures. Otherwise, bring a list (or have cards printed) with what the allergens are and another list of things that are safe to eat. Then, provide brief instruction on how to cook those foods safely such as “please use clean skillet, do not grill.” The information is positive and provides a solution for both you and the Restaurant or Kitchen Manager. Additionally, you can also go in and talk to a Manager (or call) when they are not in the middle of a lunch or dinner rush and ask him/her if they can help you have a safe eating experience for future meals.
So, you see, it is possible to get out and be welcomed, treated well, and be included in the overall conversation of what it means to go out to eat and enjoy a meal together. We are lucky and grateful for the Don Pablo’s Manager, and others like him, as our life experience has been made all the better because he chose to listen and make a little boy’s dining out experience an excellent one!
Sincere thanks to the Manager and to John Scharpf for allowing me to publish our experience at our local Don Pablo’s as an example of excellent service to the needs of our community.