• Allergy Force Insights

Restaurants and Food Allergies: Making Everyone Welcome

For many families with severe food allergies, dining out is way out of their comfort zone, not even remotely an option. Shandee Chernow, CEO and Founder of Certistar Inc., gets this, perhaps better than anyone, because she has multiple, severe food allergies and EoE, and has had many anaphylactic reactions and trips to the ER.


But Shandee also made a living in a sales role that required wining and dining clients at their favorite restaurants, even if her only safe menu option was salad and a diet coke. If she was going to connect with clients and make sales, she didn't have an 'opt out' option.


Her lived experience inspired Shandee to figure out a better way for restaurants to keep the hospitality in hospitality, so everyone can be welcomed, safely.


Read on to find out what she created to help people with food allergies eat out safely.

 
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—Two Trees Meet by Shandee

"Creativity is intelligence having fun"

—Albert Einstein



Allergy Force recently caught up with Shandee Chernow, CEO and Founder of CertiStar Inc. and host of the Shandeeland Podcast where she explores food allergies, the hospitality business and the food landscape with special guests from all walks of life.


Imagine living your life and then BOOM! You wake up one morning at the age of 28, after a potluck dinner party the night before, with a fat lip that looked like you’d had a run in with a prize fighter. Mystified and more than a little concerned, Shandee called her dad, a retired physician.


“Dad, I woke up with a big lip. I don’t know what happened.”

“See an allergist. This is a food allergy reaction,” her Dad advised.


So, Shandee went to the allergist, got tested and the only positive was pork.


That was just the beginning


A typical 20-something, Shandee was not taking great care of herself and most of the time ignored that she was allergic to pork. Fast forward about three years and Shandee was diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) after being tested for just about everything from Parkinson’s disease to MS with no answers, just dead ends.


More than a little disheartened after the endless rounds of testing, her dad helped connect the dots and an endoscopy confirmed she had EoE, a chronic, allergic inflammatory disease of the esophagus, that can make eating and swallowing difficult or uncomfortable.


The next step was figuring out her food triggers. Skin Prick Testing and bloodwork indicated 35 different allergies.


If only she’d known that was the easy part. The hard ‘work’ was just starting.

Shandee was put on an elimination diet that removed the top 8 allergens and ALL her other allergens for 12 weeks. She survived on elemental formula and chicken, turkey and grapes. She added back a food every two weeks. As she added foods back into her diet she had 3 anaphylactic reactions to shellfish and tree nuts.


Looking back, Shandee reflects, “I think the elimination diet was too extreme for too long. My body seemed to forget which foods were safe for me.”


Despite all this ‘work’, her EoE triggers were never clearly identified.


Shandee described what it’s like to have EoE, “You try to swallow and can’t. The muscles you use to swallow don’t work anymore and then you gag and throw up, or eventually get it down. If you can’t expel the food or get it down, you have to go to the ER to get it out.”


"Anaphylactic reactions…the first one is the hardest…"

—Shandee Chernow


About 18 weeks into the EoE discovery process, Shandee opened a jar of peanut butter to make a sandwich for her sons and she stopped breathing. The thing about anaphylaxis she reflects is that “once you have a reaction and have dealt with the shock of it, having another one does not feel as life altering. The first one is the hardest.”


Shandee’s sons (ages 9 and 12) are fiercely protective of her. They won’t eat her allergens around her. On planes, they inform the flight attendant on her behalf where she keeps her epinephrine. Shandee shares, “They fear losing me because they understand the severity. They are my biggest support system.“


As a family, they regularly practice anaphylaxis emergency drills so they’re prepared if {when} a reaction strikes. Shandee keeps EpiPens everywhere and always has them in her purse. “My boys know exactly where every EpiPen is in the house,” Shandee explains, adding, “My oldest is uncomfortable with needles so he’s in charge of getting emergency help in the drills. My youngest finds my purse and ‘administers’ the EpiPen {trainer}.”


The role playing helps her family stay ready to help her and gives them confidence they'll know what to do under the stress of a real reaction.


Food allergies and client care & feeding

—the hunger games

Shandee got her career start in business development. The role required lots of travel, client lunches and dinners. The hard thing about food allergies in a business situation is that you don’t get to veto a restaurant if you feel uncomfortable. “When you’re in a sales role,” explains Shandee, “you go where the client wants to go for meals. That certainly kept it ‘interesting’ for me.”


She was all about figuring out the workaround.


“I could always make it work, even if it was only salad and a diet coke for me,” she remembers, admitting “...it took a ton of extra time and work.”


Shandee would arrive at a restaurant 30 to 45 minutes before the scheduled meeting to have the food allergy conversation privately with the restaurant before her clients arrived. She’d ask the restaurant staff to pretend they never had the conversation because she didn’t want the spotlight on her and her dietary issues while she was trying to make a sale. “All the subterfuge got old pretty quickly,” remembers Shandee.


There's gotta be a better way

After years dealing with apprehension that human error in a restaurant kitchen would cause an allergic reaction, Shandee drew on her deep experience as a restaurant customer to create CertiStar in 2017. She wanted to provide a better way for restaurants to accommodate customers just like her.


Shandee tapped her computer and big data skills to develop software restaurants could use to more easily and safely accommodate customers with dietary restrictions. Her prototype equipped restaurants to quickly and accurately identify allergen risks in their menus, provide diet-friendly alternatives to meet customer needs, and easily add specials and new menu items into the mix.


She soon found, however, that data access wasn’t enough. Restaurants needed training that went hand-in-hand with the data-driven solutions, with emphasis on how to make people with dietary challenges feel welcomed, safe. After all, isn’t that what hospitality’s about?

Keeping the hospitality in hospitality

As soon as she had proof of concept, Shandee took the leap to focus full time on building out CertiStar.


Today, the company helps restaurants inform customers of potential allergy issues on their menus, expediting a process that could take 10 minutes or more as conversations shift from customer to waiter to chef and back again.


Who has time for that when you’re hungry and just want to know if the restaurant can make you something safe?


Recently CertiStar signed Carnival Cruise Lines as a client. Carnival Cruise Line will deploy a new ‘Menu Mate’ food ingredient program on all of their cruise ships to help accommodate guests with special dietary needs. The program is powered by CertiStar software and is the first of its kind among major cruise lines.


A creator to her core

certistar-inc-ceo-founder-shandee-chernow-headshot

A creator to her core, Shandee launched the Shandeeland Podcast in 2020 and has produced over 130 episodes. If you haven’t listened to the Shandeeland Podcast, you should — it's great company on a long drive or walk. The podcast explores food allergies, business and life’s moments, big and small. Guests have included a diverse lineup, from the food allergy space, to hospitality industry notables, to culinary creators, to medical experts, and then some. Easy to listen to. Lots to learn.

Shandee also paints, having discovered this hidden talent during a ‘wine and paint’ outing. She never knew she had this gift until she picked up a paint brush. She came home, ordered a ton of supplies, and was off on another creative pursuit. If you’d asked her 10 years ago, “Can you paint?”, she’d have said, “No way!” She can’t draw to save her life, but hand her a paint brush and palette and magic unfolds.


For Shandee, the beauty of painting is that you get do-overs. If something isn’t going the way you want, you can paint over it or scrape it off and it’s “...very satisfying!” Shandee paints as ‘Shandee Amber’ and you can find her work at Wentworth Galleries. She reflects, “I don’t paint as much as I could, or should, but the funny thing with painting is that something gets into my head and I have to get it out."

Life's a journey


Life’s definitely a journey. “It sometimes takes you to places you could never have predicted in your wildest imagination, so just hang on and enjoy the ride,” offers Shandee.


She has a few words of advice from lived experience for creators who have a dream and want to make an impact on the world:


1. Know your strengths. Leverage them.


“I tapped into my computer and big data skills to solve a personal pain point that millions of other people with restricted diets struggle with, too — eating out safely.”



2. Find good advisors — informal and formal —that you trust.


“You don’t know what you don’t know when you dive in and get started. I’ve had to become the HR professional I never aspired to be. At times, I think an MBA would have helped. Who knew?”



3. Solve for pain points and solve them thoroughly.


“When you address a pain point in a value adding way, the customers will come.”



4. Find outlets — outside of your venture — to take you to new places in your thinking.


“For me, painting clears my head and takes me to different places, new places. I do some of my best thinking when I paint.”




"I begin with an idea and it becomes something else."

—Pablo Picasso



 
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CertiStar™ is on a mission to protect and improve the safety and dining experience of men, women and children vulnerable to food allergens. CertiStar™ has taken food industry and food allergy data and matched it with patent-pending smart technology to create an easy-to-use web platform, MenuStar™, that helps manage menus, recipes, and inventory, all while empowering staff to serve those with food allergies.


“No matter where food is prepared or served, we want your customers to eat and your staff to serve with confidence.”

 
logo-shandeeland-podcast

CertiStar CEO, Shandee Chernow, explores restaurant industry insights, food allergies, business, and life’s moments on the Shandeeland Podcast. Each week she hosts special guests from all walks of life including chefs, restauranteurs, hospitality pioneers, food allergy innovators, and other industry leaders. Prepare to feel inspired and motivated as you hear success stories and other incredible life experiences.

 
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Credits: Images courtesy of Certistar Inc.


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