Working as an NYC Barista Opened My Eyes to Food Allergy Risks

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in Food Allergy, Managing Allergies, Your Stories
Published: September 19, 2017
Hannah Lank working as a barista in a New York coffee shop.

In what was mostly an attempt to subsidize my coffee addiction, this summer I found myself with my first-ever food service job: pulling espresso shots, foaming milk and pouring lattes at a New York coffee shop.

The perks: free drinks and a weekly paycheck. The con: early morning shifts, I’m talking 5:30 a.m.

Although I never managed to master the craft of that fancy latte art you see on Instagram, I did have the eye-opening experience of being a food service worker with food allergies – and it was not the most reassuring.

When I went for my first training shift, I was surprised at the lack of discussion on proper food handling, especially when it came to cross-contact. Overall, I found New York to be very aware of the danger of cross-contact, with sit-down restaurants required to display informational posters about the issue to patrons and staff. Unfortunately, this requirement doesn’t extend to all coffee shops, including mine.

In the mornings, our baked goods would arrive fresh, but when I opened the box to put the croissants out, I was unsettled to see the plain and almond croissants packaged together – a cross-contact nightmare. No one at the shop seemed to think this was problematic; the cross-contact continued when I was showed how to put the croissants out on the platters: using the same gloves for plain and almond, and these same gloves for quiches, muffins, bagels, and any other food we received.

Our toaster oven, lined with aluminum foil, was mostly dedicated to toasting bagels, all of which were nut-free and safe for me to eat. However, the toaster oven could also be used to warm our muffins and loaves – all of which contained hazelnuts, pecans or some other nut. Another cross-contact risk.

We had one pair of tongs, and used them for everything: bagels, muffins, croissants, sandwiches. They were not washed in between uses.

At the beginning of my employment, I made my manager aware of my food allergies. I said I wasn’t able to try some of the drinks, like our hot chocolate because I was unsure of its ingredients, and that I’d prefer to not be responsible for spreading Nutella on bagels because of my allergies.

Neither of these requests was deemed an issue and my manager never asked about my food allergies again. Although this wasn’t a proactive situation, it was more neutral than negative; I felt comfortable with what I was responsible for doing and my manager was happy with my assigned roles as well.

As a food-allergic person, I am usually very wary of eating from establishments like the coffee shop where I worked. Now I can verify that this is with good reason.

An allergic customer coming into the shop looking at the croissants may have seen nothing wrong with the plain ones: who puts nuts inside of croissants, right? The non-allergic worker behind the counter may also see nothing wrong because, objectively, the croissants do not contain nuts as an ingredient. What neither person is seeing, however, is the cross-contact that has occurred behind-the-scenes in getting the baked good onto the platter. That’s a major risk, and unsettling for an allergic person to know.

When I worked behind the counter, I did my best to minimize allergy risks, changing my gloves for different foods, using clean and separate platters for allergen- and non-allergen-containing foods, and alerting anyone who came in the shop and disclosed an allergy that I would not recommend eating our food.

Hannah in New York.

As an allergic person, I would emphasize again the importance of never assuming something is safe for you to eat because it looks safe; always disclose your allergy and always use your best sense in judging your surroundings.

Although I am allergic to nuts, I do not feel uncomfortable working in environments where nuts are present (unless peanut butter is being used – I don’t like how easy it spreads and cross-contaminates). Such a situation isn’t my first choice, but I am still comfortable working in this type of environment.

I’m among those who believe it is important for allergic people to know how to manage themselves around their allergens, as allergens exist everywhere in the outside world and are impossible to avoid forever. I never ate from my coffee shop and was careful to always wear gloves when handling food. I would wash my hands immediately after any contact with food, regardless of whether I was wearing gloves or not.

If you are about to enter the food services industry [*See Editor’s Note below] for the first time and are nervous about managing your food allergies on the job, the best advice I can give is to always put your own health first. Disclose your allergies to your manager and let them know what you are and aren’t comfortable doing.

For example, if you have a milk allergy, steaming milk for lattes is definitely not for you, just as I wouldn’t want to be making peanut butter sandwiches. When working in food services, being open about your allergies with your co-workers and managers is not only good for your health, it helps to spread awareness about cross-contact and its associated risks.

Although I didn’t see noticeable improvement among my co-workers while I was there, I did my best to lead by example, putting plain and almond croissants on different platters, using two pairs of tongs and cleaning all utensils between uses. I’m glad I had the chance to experience the behind-the-scenes of the food service industry. It has made me more conscious of the risks of eating out as an allergic person, as well as a better food handler.

I can also now tout my New York coffee shop work experience to my friends and think it sounds pretty cool. Iced mocha latte and a bagel without a side of cross-contact, anyone?

*Editor’s Note: Working in food services may not be suitable for everyone with food allergies. If you consider it: consult your allergist for advice about your specific case.

Read more from Hannah Lank: 
You Can Be a ‘Foodie’ with Allergies, But Also Be a Food Detective
The Consequences of Faking a Food Allergy
College Lessons: When a Roommate Resists Your Allergy Rules
College Year One: Success With a Side of Food Allergy ‘Jokes’
College and Cross-Contact: Navigating Food Allergy On Campus