If you have food allergies, dining out is always a risk. We had a close call our first night in Chicago on a family vacation last month.

After a long day of travel, we got settled into our hotel room and went down to one of the hotel restaurants for a late dinner. It was a Sunday evening, around 9:30, and while the front desk had assured us that the restaurant was open until 11, that turned out to only be half true. The restaurant entrance was blocked off, but the kitchen was serving the full menu to a shared seating area that you entered through the bar.

We’d been concerned about finding food for our not-quite-two-year-old son. Kids’ menus are awfully limited these days, and very heavy on cheese, which he can’t eat. Chicken nuggets are fine once in a while, but only go so far on a ten-day trip. So we were pleasantly surprised to see a Sunbutter, jelly and banana sandwich on the kids’ menu. Because of my severe peanut allergy, we keep peanuts out of the house, so Katie goes to sunflower seed butter and almond butter for toast and sandwiches, and J loves it so much he’ll demand a taste if she’s eating it. Score!

After a very long wait, the waitress finally brought the sandwich, dropped it off saying, “Here’s your PBJ,” and left.

Wait, PBJ?

Katie tasted it, and it was in fact peanut butter.

Red alert mode engaged!

As I mentioned, I’m severely allergic to peanuts. We don’t know yet whether J is, but we didn’t want to risk finding out in a hotel in a strange city thousands of miles from home.

The waitress seemed a bit confused by the issue when we finally got her attention (all the while trying to find other things we could feed an increasingly-cranky toddler who thought he was finally going to eat), and we had to point out that yes, the menu specifically said Sunbutter.

They did take the sandwich off the bill, and replaced it with a plain jelly-and-banana sandwich. But it put us on alert for the rest of the week.

The really disturbing thing was that it wasn’t just any sunflower seed butter listed on the menu, but a specific brand, one whose purpose is to be a safe alternative for people who are allergic to peanuts. That’s like telling a diabetic that you have Clemmy’s sugar-free ice cream and handing them Ben and Jerry’s. Or giving someone Everclear to help with their dehydration.

We lucked out, because Katie caught it before J could eat any of it. Really, the restaurant dodged a bullet too: They could have served it to a family with a confirmed allergic child. Imagine how blindsided they’d be when someone silently replaced a peanut-free food with peanuts.

The next morning we talked to the concierge about it. She called the restaurant manager, who was out, but took our room number and my cell number. He called while we were out at lunch. I explained again what had happened on our end, and he said they’d discovered a “gap in training” and were retraining now. He also asked if he could have anything sent to our room, and listed off a few options including food, bottled water, and more. We had just picked up breakfast supplies, and didn’t have a refrigerator in our room, so we only asked for the water.

That evening, we got back to the room to find a full spread on one of the desks. A jar of Sunbutter, a loaf of bread, a plate of single servings of jams and jellies, four place settings with forks, knives, plates, napkins, and stemmed glasses (perfect for a room with a toddler!)…and yes, some bottles of water. And a refrigerator.

A view of the table with bread, jam jars, place settings, and a jar of Sunbutter.

J was all over the knives and jars, so we scrambled to get them out of reach and out of sight.

The next morning we opened the refrigerator. Inside we found two bottles of juice, four single serving boxes of milk, and more water! We did use most of it over the course of the week, though we donated the bread to the con suite.

In the end, no one was hurt, the hotel fixed their training, and they went above and beyond what we needed to help us stay safe during our stay. Things worked out about as well as they could have for this sort of mix-up. But it does show the need for greater awareness and education about food allergies.

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network provides, among many other programs, resources for the food industry. We’re participating in the October 21 Walk for Food Allergy to raise funds for research, awareness, education and advocacy. Please help us support FAAN’s mission with a tax-deductible donation. [Edit: Updated link for 2014 fundraiser.] Thank you!

2 thoughts on “Allergy Incident on Vacation: That’s Not Sunbutter

  1. Hi there,
    Thanks for sharing your story, which caught my eye since I blog for SunButter. We’re relieved it was resolved — and especially that you and your family are safe. I appreciate the lessons and insight from your story, though, as we continue to learn from those dealing with food allergies. It’s a lot to navigate! Please be sure to stop by the SunButter booth at the FAAN walk. I’m pretty sure they plan to have some people there and I’ll let them know to look for you. (Samples = good, right?) Take care. Looking forward to following!

    • Hi, thanks for commenting! I’m pretty sure I remember SunButter having a table at last year’s walk, and we’ll definitely make a point to stop by it this year.

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