An Open Letter to Marriott: FOOD ALLERGY AWARENESS
(The Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort & Villas, December 2018)
My family and I were excited to check in to the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort & Villas this 2018 winter holiday season. We heard amazing feedback and read great reviews about the property and looked forward to our stay.
Mind you, our daughter, who has serious food allergies is now 12. Since the age of 2 months old, we have traveled with her to Central America, multiple islands in the Caribbean, Asia, Canada and all over the United States. We have never had a food allergy incident until our recent stay in Maui, at your specific property – at your restaurant (Pulehu) who assured us our daughter’s meal was entirely allergen free. To note: our child is allergic to all dairy, eggs, gluten and nuts (all nuts). Also to note: this is a very short list compared to what her initial allergens were, earlier in life (pages of food items to avoid). For this, we are grateful!
That being said, we have always been extremely calculated with our travel plans. Once, we cancelled a trip to Costa Rica because the nearest hospital was only available via helicopter.
We have shipped our daughter’s special food items to remote areas, have booked air bnb’s specifically because they were close to grocery stores that carry food items (and particular brands), that our daughter can eat (all of which I have planned ahead for, called in advance, made sure items were in stock DAY OF TRAVEL, etc). We never leave the house without doctor’s notes, often fly with frozen foods in special ice pack carries and arm ourselves with Benadryl, baby wipes, Claritin and epi-pens. An amazing invention “table toppers” – sticky, disposable placemats that we stuck to every surface eating area foreign to our home, became our best friends. It wasn’t just an accidental ingestion of food that was our concern; it was cross contamination. Yes, she is that sensitive. Most people with food allergies are.
So when we booked our hotel stay at the Westin in Lahaina, we mostly planned to cook food in our villa that was armed with a kitchenette. We also knew that sashimi and white rice would be plentiful on the island, and planned to eat out once or twice at a sushi restaurant. (Arizona loves her Japanese food)! But one evening, as we were coming back from a sunset sail and looking for an eating experience outside of our hotel room and taking a break from sushi, I thought: “Hmm, there’s an Italian restaurant on property. I wonder if they serve gluten free + vegan + nut free pasta?” Our daughter isn’t very picky. She’ll eat that pasta with plain olive oil and a little bit of salt. Add a side of steamed or sauteed veggies? A perfect meal for her.
I called Palehu, the Italian restaurant. I asked if they had gluten free + vegan + nut free pasta. They assured us, yes, they did. I made a reservation.
Our server was super knowledgeable, and understood our specific needs right away. Sometimes I feel like a nuisance, asking a million questions about ingredients and specifics and having folks double and triple check with chef and sous chefs in the kitchen. We were assured, over and over, that they were familiar (and very experienced) with accommodating our daughter’s specific food allergies. We trusted them.
And then our child was given her first course – gluten free + vegan + nut free flat bread. There was a piece of parsley on top, something we weren’t expecting, but our child isn’t allergic to parsley, so we just removed it and she started eating. “OH no, Mama,” she said a few minutes later. “My lip is tingling.”
I looked over and saw a slight swell. This wasn’t hugely uncommon, so I reached into my purse and gave her a dosage of chewable children’s Benadryl. We monitored her for another 10-15 minutes, at which point the swelling remained stable. “I’m feeling better, Mama,” she said. And, she looked (and seemed) fine.
Her main dish of gluten free + vegan + nut free pasta (spaghetti) mixed with plain olive oil was served next. She also had a side of sautéed broccolini (made with olive oil only, they assured us). I noticed some pieces of garlic in the broccolini, but because she’s not allergic to that, felt okay having her eat it.
To spare many details later and to make a long story short, our daughter had a critical allergic response to something that night, and specifically from the meal she consumed at Palehu. We ended up calling 911 and were visited by both the Maui fire department and EMT responders. Thankfully, multiple Benadryl dosages and a night of discomfort (full body swelling and insanely itchy rashes) were all our daughter had to endure. Her throat did not swell shut; she did not go into anaphylactic shock. She was FINE and we are so GRATEFUL.
AND, as I wanted to share the information with the hotel staff the next day, I was directed to the food & beverage manager and other management. I expressed my concerns around the restaurant protocol and the way they responded to specific food requests.
Unfortunately, the hotel seemed more concerned with their lack of fault / liability than the humane issue of our child experiencing the allergy attack and related trauma. (As a side note, and this can be another article altogether, our daughter’s autism comes with a huge side dish of anxiety. Her first response to her allergic reaction is that she would never trust a hotel restaurant again; and certainly not an Italian one). She will perseverate on this and will carry it with her, for years to come. I know this, and I will also help her process through it. Our goal is for her to experience NEW things, not run away from experiences.
I let the hotel management know that it was not my intention to sue anybody; what good would that do?? I have a huge passion for educating and sharing information from my lived experience as an ALLERGY MAMA, to those who can affect change in my community / population. I shared these tidbits with the Westin staff and hope you, too, can take this message seriously.
A few thoughts about CROSS CONTAMINATION in foods:
- Cooking utensils including skillets / pots / toasters, cannot be privy to items with allergens unless thoroughly scoured / cleaned out, etc. Even when we travel to places with kitchens, I often travel with my own cookware. When we don’t, I put items through the dishwasher before using. Even then, I am extremely cautious.
- What about the garlic that was in the broccolini? Where was it chopped? On the same cutting board as someone cutting a dairy item?
- Did someone grab the flat bread to deliver to our table after they had wiped their hands on their apron that had raw egg on it from a previous recipe?
- Just because you are serving someone food items that don’t have the ingredients someone is allergic to, doesn’t mean they won’t have a reaction. This could be from the item being prepared in the vicinity of something. Maybe a chef / cook didn’t wash their hands after handling another food item?
- I took some bread home from a restaurant once; it was supposedly vegan + gluten free. I later learned that it had an egg wash brushed over the top; totally fine for me, but what if I had put that in the gluten free toaster designated for my daughter? She would have had a reaction to it, for sure.
I am interested in continued travel and experiences with my child. I am grateful for all of the adventures we’ve had, thus far! My wish is that allergy awareness protocol can be a little more defined; and that corporations and hotel chains can be open to more feedback, from the source (allergy families). I look forward to continually sharing my learnings with anyone who will listen. We might have to be a little more creative sometimes, but we still get to LIVE amazing lives. And my wish is that we all can!