WOW! What a fabulous weekend at the FAAN Food Allergy Conference in Chicago April 14 & 15! Such a wonderful experience to meet in person all of those we have been connecting with on Facebook, Twitter, via websites & email. It was such a pleasure being around so many people who actually “get it” and who “get” each one of us dealing with food allergies, and what we go through every day.
Having the opportunity to be in Chicago for the conference, we decided to extend our stay over the weekend, bring our families and take on the town. In general, Chicago is an amazing city to visit! The drive for is always well worth the trip, and we never seem to do the same thing twice. Between the fabulous shows, museums, zoos, the aquarium, shopping, Navy Pier, the Willis/Sears Tower (one of the tallest buildings in the world), the John Hancock building, the beach on Lake Michigan and so much more, there are numerous places to visit. Chicago has many food allergy friendly places listed on www.AllerDine.com, including a few fan favorites: The American Girl Cafe, Kim and Scott’s Café Twist and Bistro 110, all which do not have any peanuts.
So how do you pick a hotel? Our recommendation is just make sure that you have a clean hotel with a refrigerator and ideally a microwave. This way you can either bring some of your food or shop nearby to eat in the room sometimes and have food on hand for backup. Always wipe down the refrigerator and any other questionable surfaces just to be sure there is no food residue.
So here’s the play-by-play on our amazing trip…
We stayed at the Hyatt Lodge on the McDonald University Campus in Oak Brook – about a ½ hour outside the downtown Chicago area. (BTW – We’ve stayed in the city too on past trips at Hyatt or Hilton, but this conference was out at the McDonald University Campus). They Hyatt Lodge staff were very accommodating with food allergies. We connected with them ahead of time and Chef Josh answered several of our emails asking specific food allergy questions. We found many items that we were able to eat and safely too, but actually just ended up ordering the pizza although other things were safe too. And well, with the FAAN Conference staff staying there too, we expected nothing less.
After an amazing conference, we decided to hit some sites. We went out to the Field Museum and saw amazing exhibits, including up close and personal the infamous “Sue” – an actual real tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that was originally found outside of Chicago. This had to be one of these coolest things to ever see in person! We also went out to the Shed Aquarium with amazing exhibits, tons of exotic fish and very cool Jellyfish exhibit. On our final day we also went to The Willis Tower – AKA The Sears Tower. To be up so high and look down in a glass window box was so breathtaking!
Well, if that wasn’t good enough, we also ate out! This was an experience we will never forget! With advance research and help from AllerDine.com (yes, we use it for our eating out purposes too!), we decided we wanted to eat out – downtown.
My first step was to look on www.AllerDine.com and find all of the peanut-free restaurants in the area that were highly rated, read how they handle food allergies and each restaurant’s details.
Then I decided to email each of the managers to tell them we wanted to come visit. I shared our specific food allergy needs and asked all of the questions you can find in the AllerDine Restaurant Toolkit to make sure everything was up to date on the website. In addition, I also asked specifically what type of foods we would be able to eat with all of the multiple food allergies we had (we didn’t want the “standard” chicken sautéed in oil with a vegetable on the side). I also didn’t mention that I worked for AllerDine, only that I saw the profile on the site. I didn’t want them to feel under pressure, only to see if their answers were consistent to what we had on the site and see if we could eat out at their location with our specific needs.
The next day I received an email back from Steve Rennau the General Manager at Bistro 110. He answered all of my questions in great detail, down to the specific food items that would be safe and unsafe, sending me a menu along with it, how they have a separate preparation area in the kitchen, that the chef on duty would come out to meet with us at the table to go over everything again, their process and so much more. He even mentioned that the Executive Chef, Dominique Tougne has two kids with food allergies and all of the staff there is very well trained. That was truly one of the best emails I have ever received from a restaurant. The fact that it was also peanut free was key when picking a restaurant for us. I felt that this was where we should eat.
As the day came and we decided to visit, I called up in advance and asked to speak with Steve (Manager) or Chef Tougne. Neither was in that day, so I spoke with Chef Kate about details. I was a bit hesitant, but her answers to my questions on the phone were the same as I read in Steve’s email and it set me at ease. Consistency when answering questions is SO important. I told her we would be there between 3:30pm and 4:30pm since we were going to the Field Museum that day. (It’s always a good idea to try and avoid a busy time). As well, I decided to email her the correspondence between Steve and I so she could see the specific allergens in print vs. trying to remember them all. I told her there would be two families with 8 people and multiple food allergies for 4 of us (all with peanut, tree nut, sesame, chick pea, coconut, sunflower, one with egg allergies too and one with some fruits as well). I told her I would call on our way in to double check they would be prepared.
Surprisingly, she even emailed me back to tell me she received my email and that she made a reservation with the host noting our allergies on the computer so that if she wasn’t in when we came, that the next Chef and Manager would be prepared. She even told me that she would personally speak with both Chef Joe and the Manager on duty if we weren’t in before she left.
So far, so good, right? Well it is even more impressive…
One word describes the experience we had – “UNBELIEVEABLE!” But it’s true!
We called ahead just to let them know we were on our way and that we talked to Chef Kate. The hostess said she saw our reservation and all of the allergens were noted, but Chef Joe was on duty at that point. I thought to myself, “Ok, we’ll go. We have back up food just in case we feel uncomfortable with anything.” We finally arrived at Bistro 110 at 4:30pm, still with some fear and anxiety in us, even though we knew this was an educated decision, with a staff that seemed to be very well prepared for those with food allergies. But nonetheless, these real feelings on nervousness are always still there before each meal eating out.
What a pleasure to see the staff that was prepared from the host, all the way through the entire restaurant. They didn’t want to take any chances and really wanted to accommodate us. It was raining out, so we couldn’t eat outside as we had hoped. So they planned to sit us in the restaurant in a section that was not being used yet. Because the table was set in the morning and they didn’t know what may have happened during the day, they reset the table completely. Using freshly washed hands, they set the table again with a new tablecloth, all fresh clean utensils, glasses, napkins, wiped everything down with a clean wet cloth, printed new menus, used straws from a brand new box and more! They also use new paper covers on all of the tables over the tablecloths that you can draw on, so they gave us fresh crayons too.
We had also asked for a freshly cleaned water pitcher to have at the table so it wouldn’t be used anywhere else. The Manager thoughtfully brought us a big bottle of Evian water to us to just to make sure there was no possible cross-contaminated in any way. We didn’t even think of that, and completely appreciated the extra attention to detail!
Managers Jayme Fetmon and Anita Anile, were so attentive, concerned with our needs, and gratious. As Jessica, our server came over to say hello, Chef Joe popped out and said he would take care of our order personally. He even had in his hand the printed email I sent to Chef Kate and said they went over the allergies. Then he went through the process and told us how he would prepare everything from scratch – fresh utensils, pans, ingredients, etc., in a separate area of the kitchen. He went through what each of the 4 kids with different food allergies could have. We were thrilled that they actually had many choices! Even the adults without food allergies were told if there could be any allergens in items they wanted. So two of the kids decided on the pasta with marinara sauce and pizza, and the other two had steak (with baked fries and green beans for one, and mashed potatoes and green beans for the other). And if it only ended there we would have been more than satisfied with our options, but we even had the option for dessert! The one without egg allergies had fresh made crème brulee, and the others had fresh berries. Although in general some of the foods were not unique, they were so special to us. And the prices on the kid’s meals were extremely reasonable.
As Chef Joe served the food personally and the minutes passed without any reactions, relief was finally setting in. I was starting to feel myself relax and enjoy my own meal – the braised short ribs with mashed potatoes and asparagus was one of the best meals I have ever had! I then even had a glass of wine, but of course not more than one – just in case something was delayed. But thankfully everything was amazing from start to finish. The service, accommodations, taste of everything and most of all the procedures they took to keep us safe were top notch.
As I looked around the table at everyone enjoying themselves laughing and smiling (just like those without food allergies), tears of happiness came to my eyes. With comments such as “this was the best dinner ever!”, “can we come back tomorrow” and “thank you so much for making this happen,” I was elated! While I do realize everyone has their issues, for those without food allergies, they often take these experiences which should be simple for granted. They don’t even realize what it’s like and what it takes for those with severe food allergies to eat out. For us eating out safely is challenging, yet priceless on so many levels, and this unbelievable experience will leave a lasting memory and joy in our hearts forever. The gratitute and happiness in my face beamed as I thanked everyone who worked there. And in return, their faces lit up because they knew they had created not only a safe experience, but one we will never forget!
A HUGE THANK YOU TO EVERYONE AT BISTRO 110! We wish every place could be so wonderfully knowledgeable and accommodating! We know we will be back when we visit Chicago again and give you an A++ for our overall experience down to every last detail! We wish you were in our hometown so we could visit you often, as those with food allergies are extremely loyal customers. But you have won us over in Chicago, we will be back every time we visit, and we will let all of our friends know that Bistro 110 is a phenomenal place for those with food allergies!