The Big Eight – A Food Service Nightmare

Tea is pretty simple.

When you serve tea in a commercial setting, you can be mostly relaxed about causing allergic reactions.

Of course, you need to filter the water and boil it properly. Tap water can be dangerous and trigger allergies in some cases, as this medical paper on pesticides suggests.

But mostly, tea should be free of the “Big Eight” Allergy causing foodstuffs:  eggs, milk, fish, shellfish, nuts from trees, groundnuts, soy and wheat.

Obviously, it’s easy to just not put milk in tea, and to put soy milk in if someone wants it ‘milky’ but cannot tolerate milk but can tolerate soy, or to put almond milk in if someone cannot tolerate milk or soy but can tolerate tree nuts, or too…hang on, maybe it’s not that easy.

Some flavoured teas have chips made of vegetable protein with flavouring sprayed on them. The vegetable protein is often made from soy beans.

Now that’s confusing.

Add food and you get a whole new dimension.

Take my own allergy, which is not one of the listed one: citrus. This allergy surprises people because it knocks out Earl Grey Tea (flavoured with oil from a citrus tree), most cheesecakes (lemon as a setting agent), fruit cakes/ hot cross buns/Christmas fruit mince pies (lemon/orange peel is cheap and filling and therefore popular in them), dried apples and sun-dried tomatoes (lemon juice to preserve colour) and virtually every dish ever made in Greece, Spain or the Middle East. It’s often found in commercial tomato juices, in biscuits, in curries: it’s everywhere!

And my allergy is unusual, so I get that it’s awkward. Every time I fly I list the allergy, every time I get a meal full of citrus. According to Delta staff, there are 7 “tick boxes” for special meals, and as ‘citrus-free’  isn’t one of them, they just don’t care. It’s not like you can eat next door if you are unhappy!

But when it comes to the more prevalent allergies and conditions, every tea shop and café/bistro owner needs to be aware of the danger posed to potential customers.

The best source of information is the customer themselves. Everyone is different. For example, as a result of my citrus allergy, I have an irrational fear of orange or yellow coloured sweets. Give me a bag of jelly beans or jubes and I’ll fall on them with a vengeance, but I’ll hand back half a bag of yellow and orange ones. I may look sideways at the green ones too. I know that makes no sense. I don’t expect other people to guess it.

When we have been serving food and/or tea to the public, we’ve always worked on three principles:

  1. Think ahead and have a few items that suit common allergies and conditions or lifestyle choices: Coeliac Disease, Diabetes, Vegetarianism
  2. Make everything fresh, so the person who made the food can talk directly to the customer if needed
  3. Be flexible, especially if the customer is also

You can’t please everyone: one day a man marched into our tea shop and up to the gelati counter, screamed “THIS IS NOT VEGAN” and then marched out.

That guy? Not going to please him. And quite frankly, he wasn’t welcome back. Not that we ever saw him again, probably because of our hideously non-Vegan ways.

Coeliac Disease is one of the more interesting ones. Way back in 2007, we used to keep a supermarket brand of gluten-free frozen bread in the freezer in case anyone asked, wrapped in sets of two slices. Saxon AKA Devotea Junior was our chef, and he insisted. I thought the product was unpalatable rubbish.

Saxon was right.

People who suffered this disease were incredibly grateful that they could get a piece of tiny, hard, flavourless toast substitute under their eggs or around their burger. It was an important lesson.

Since then, Lady Devotea has ensured that every pop-up tea shop had a gluten-free offering, usually made with something like almond flour. Often they were the tastiest thing on the menu. Sometimes she steeped them in orange syrup just so I could be trusted alone in the van with them, I think.

Cost is an issue. Almond flour can be more than ten times the cost of wheat flour. Naturally this is reflected in the final price.

And higher prices are attractive to some food outlets for the worst of reasons. People everywhere are trying a gluten-free diet in pursuit of of other health goals, not due to having Coeliacs. Manufacturers can charge more for gluten-free, whether it is actually gluten-free or not.

Here’s an example: At Domino’s in the USA, you can pay extra for a “Gluten Free Crust” that comes with the warning “not recommended for Coeliac sufferers” .

I understand how cafes and restaurants play the percentages. If less than 1% of the population can’t tolerate gluten, less than 2% are vegetarian, less than 0.4% have an allergy, why spend money catering for them?

It’s a valid argument if you accept the premise. But I don’t!

The reason I don’t is that gluten or meat or shellfish or milk are not compulsory in all dishes. And you do not need to make a special effort just be aware of what you do.

I’ve never met a true (human) carnivore. Most people are omnivores: it doesn’t stop them enjoying a vegetarian lasagne!

When we have offered a wide variety of items at a Pop-Up teashops, we have to guess how many we can sell in 4 or 5 hours. And on many occasions, we had to break the bad news to a Coeliac sufferer.

“Well, we HAD some gluten free almond and raspberry cake, but it sold out first.”

Food for thought.



2 thoughts on “The Big Eight – A Food Service Nightmare

  1. So many food allergies, – your post makes me feel lucky that I don’t have any of them. I’ve always thought it must be pretty unpleasant to go gluten free, simply because there is so much good stuff you miss out on. I suppose I could go egg-free if needed, vegetarian for a while. But I love my dairy and I love all nuts.

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