November 1, 2019

A Coffee Shop Owner’s Guide to Handling Food & Dairy Allergies


Everything from almond milk to nut brownies can trigger severe reactions in allergy sufferers. If your coffee shop isn’t prepared for this, it could lead to expensive legal action or in the worst cases, someone losing their life.

As a business owner, you’ll want to make sure you’re doing all you can to keep this from happening. Here are a few tips on how you and your staff can manage allergies and keep your customers safe.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Manejar Las Alergias Alimentarias en tu Tienda de Café

Nuts are common culprits when it comes to triggering food allergies.

What Food Allergies Should You Be Aware Of?

According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), most fatal allergic reactions occur outside the home, in public places like coffee shops. The ingredients that usually trigger reactions are milk, eggs, nuts, seeds, wheat, and soy. Nut allergies are more common in adults than other allergies, and the number of sufferers are increasing as more people are exposed to it. 

All the above ingredients feature in most coffee shop offerings. Nut milks are added to coffees for those allergic to dairy or soy milk, and vice versa. Popular food items like cakes, muffins, and sandwiches usually contain wheat and eggs.

It doesn’t always take large amounts of an allergen to cause sickness or even death. Accidental cross-contact can put a person at risk. This means that using the same jug to handle different milks could trigger a reaction in someone – even if the jug has been rinsed and contains only microscopic amounts of the offending allergen.

Despite the high risk, guidelines for how businesses can manage allergens are inconsistent, unclear, or non-existent. This means that there’s limited support to help owners protect their customers and businesses.

To make sure that your coffee shop doesn’t end up dealing with an allergy-related tragedy, here’s what you need to know.

You may also like How to Make Your Coffee Shop More Accessible

Cross-contact frequently occurs when the same equipment is used to handle different milks.

Practical Tips For Running an Allergy-Aware Coffee Shop

Ignoring the growing reality of customers with food allergies will only harm your business and the people who frequent it. For this reason, you should put in place a plan for preventing the worst from happening. Here’s how you can proactively manage your coffee shop’s allergen cross-contact risk.

1. Train Your Staff

According to Peter Littleton, Technical Director of the UK’s Christeyns Food Hygiene, high costs and staff turnover can put business owners off investing in allergy risk training. However, he says that “with the increased focus on allergen cross-contact at present, there is a demonstrable need for staff to be aware of the risks.”

Your staff is your first point of contact with the public. This means they’re the people most likely to be asked questions regarding an item. It’s critical that they’re educated on what a drink or dish contains, and how it’s put together. This will ensure they don’t accidentally provide customers with wrong information or have to find out if something is safe to serve someone with a particular allergy.

Practical tips for training your staff:

  • Train them on allergen names – often allergens appear under different names when they’re ingredients in a labelled product. For example, whey and casein are derivatives of milk that will harm someone with a dairy allergy. In addition, make sure you translate allergen terms into commonly spoken languages in your region. This will help staff communicate risks accurately, as well as understand product labels.
  • Make sure that prepared drinks or meals have an ingredient list and preparation process. Staff should be able to refer back to these documents when in doubt. This document should include details of the supply chain. It might be important to trace ingredients back to their origin. For example, some flours could be processed in the same factory as nut products.
  • Ensure staff members (including baristas) have first aid knowledge, and know who to call in an emergency. This should form part of their basic training. If possible, in-depth emergency training can be undertaken. This can include how to administer an EpiPen to someone suffering from anaphylactic shock.

Barista behind the bar. Credit: Toa Heftiba

2. Communicate With Consumers

When it comes to raising awareness, Peter believes that business owners should engage with customers directly and start a conversation. This is especially important for young adults, as they’re frequently unaware of what they can and can’t consume. Many young adults are used to parents advocating for them and are less likely to query a menu item. 

Practical tips for communicating with consumers:

  • Make sure your menu item names are clear, and clearly disclose when an item has noticeable amounts of an ingredient. Never assume that a customer will know what’s in a particular item. For example, carrot cake sometimes contains walnuts. If yours does, call it a carrot and walnut cake instead of just a carrot cake.
  • Place allergen information prominently on your menus, website, and signage. Use a clear, large, and colourful font. You could also use symbols alongside items to indicate an allergen. Studies show that most people only spend about 109 seconds browsing a menu, so this information shouldn’t be relegated to a dark corner or footnote. 

Dishwashers can make avoiding cross-contact much easier.

3. Avoid Cross-Contact

According to Peter, careful cleaning is the key to avoiding cross-contact. He recommends using “automatic dishwashers, [and] where those aren’t available then rinse with cold water, followed by washing in a warm solution of washing-up liquid, followed by a rinse and dry using disposable paper towels”.

He adds that splashing should be avoided and extra care should be taken with shared equipment, as a more thorough cleaning might be needed here. “We are aiming to remove allergenic traces here rather than denature or destroy them – in this respect the aims of bacterial cleaning and allergenic cleaning differ,” he explains.

Practical tips for preventing cross-contact:

  • Keep different products in lidded, airtight, and colour-coded containers. Make sure that meals or drinks served to customers with allergies are colour-coded or marked in some way, to ensure that those serving it know who it’s for.
  • Create a designated area, preferably away from your main drinks preparation station. Here, you can use designated equipment and utensils to prepare drinks and meals for allergen-sensitive customers.
  • Create a standard operating procedure for preparing meals and drinks for customers with allergies. There should be clear instructions on what to do when cross-contact occurs or is suspected. There should also be details on the kind of cleaning required.
  • Draft a corrective action guide for all staff members to follow. It will advise them when to dispose of something should damage or accidental cross-contact occur. It can also take into account sell-by dates and recommended dates for replacement due to wear and tear.

Food allergies are here to stay, and the more common they become in the lives of customers, the more reason there is for you to pay attention to them.

By proactively planning how you’ll deal with any eventuality before it occurs, you’ll decrease your risk, put your customers at ease, and make your coffee shop a safe choice for all.

Found this useful? Read How to Create a Coffee Shop Food Menu That Minimises Waste

Please note: Before implementing the advice in this article, we advise consulting with a local OHS or food safety expert, since differences in your country’s laws (as well as your menu and client base) can affect how to reduce your risk.

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!