As someone who has been a Dollywood Park goer for the past 20 years, I have had the opportunity to navigate the food and beverage options at the parks both pre and post diagnosis of Celiac Disease. My specific autoimmune disease not only relies on strict adherence to a gluten free diet but a non-cross contact precautionary diet as well. Because of this, I wanted to take a deeper dive into how Dollywood approaches food allergies in general as well as the steps the culinary team is taking to prevent cross contact. There have been many blogs written over the years, but I had some specific questions of my own and was given the opportunity to interview Dollywood’s Executive Chef Matthew Poorman. This blog includes what I learned.
Planning Ahead – What to Do
For those of us who have to constantly adapt and seek out options in the food allergen world in which we live, planning ahead is a vital part of our allergen-precautionary DNA. Since menus at Dollywood can change from season to season, one way I personally plan ahead is locating the most current menu on Dollywood’s website. And, as an added bonus, I have found that the online menu items are now labeled to show you what items are Gluten Free (GF), Vegetarian (V) and Vegan (VG). For example, I encourage you to check out the menu for the Front Porch Café here. People with food allergies generally love this location because of their allergen-friendly menu and kitchen. Me included.
If you need to take your pre-planning mission one step further and have any questions or need specific menu accommodations while visiting, you should contact Dollywood at firstname.lastname@example.org (don’t forget the ‘s’ at the end of questions). Due to the number of requests that they receive, please remember to be very specific about the severity of the allergen and consider allowing at least five business days for a response from Dollywood’s culinary team. Chef Matthew reiterated throughout the discussion that Dollywood wants to make sure that every guest not only has options but has a great experience when visiting. Providing the specific allergen details in advance are significant in making this happen.
You Are at Dollywood — Now What?
As you navigate through the park, you will notice that menu boards, physical menus and the Dollywood app indicate the same allergen-safe information as shown on the online menus.
If you are like me, I like to take my prospective food selection process to the next level by reviewing the ingredients prior to placing my order because I am not just avoiding gluten. You can ask for a chef or any culinary leader to have that face-to face conversation about ingredient specifics. If they cannot give you an answer, Dollywood empowers you to ask them to find someone who can. Each culinary host can provide you with an allergen book that is located at every Dollywood dining location.
It is also very important to communicate to the Dollywood restaurant hosts just how sensitive you are so that EXTRA cross contact precautions can be made to ensure that your food items are protected from coming in contact with other allergens in the kitchen.
Here is what is even more amazing: if you are unable to contact Dollywood prior to visiting and you cannot find an option that works for your specific allergy or need, you should visit Front Porch Café where the team can work with you to modify the menu to fit your needs. This may mean that they create something for you that is not on the menu or, that it is prepared in a completely different kitchen. Talk about providing a true allergen-friendly experience!
My Personal Preference
As previously mentioned, Front Porch Café is one of my go-to dining stops when I plan to eat at the park. Located on Showstreet, this allergen-inclusive locale is a full service, a la cart restaurant. During my experiences, the team at this location has been able to consistently modify the menu to fit my needs and staff have gone the extra mile to ensure low risk of cross contact. For example, if I am in the mood for a burger, I will choose Front Porch Café over Red’s Drive-In. Even though Red’s has gluten free buns, I know that Dollywood cannot guarantee that my burger will not come in contact with regular buns during preparation. Front Porch Café is the safer option for me.
In addition, because I need to personally eliminate all gluten from my diet to reduce the risk of life-threatening health complications—as opposed to someone who is avoiding gluten as a preference—I will personally avoid eating at some restaurants where cross contact is a greater risk. For example, even though Iron Horse Pizza has a gluten free pizza, Chef Matthew explained that though there is a barrier, these pizzas are cooked on the same equipment as the regular pizzas and are therefore not as safe for someone who can’t risk cross contact. However, if I wanted to enjoy eating a pizza at Dollywood, I could request a GF pizza to be prepared safely elsewhere! This is where I would need to be in touch with them before my visit, so they can be ready for this request.
It Just Keeps Getting Better!
I know that I have personally seen Dollywood’s progress in the allergen-friendly arena, but I wanted to know if there’s anything I can look forward to next season and beyond. Here’s what I’m excited to share:
- Every host who works in Dollywood’s culinary department has specific training that they have to complete to work with food, but to take it a step further, staff go through a program called AllerTrain to raise allergy awareness. Additionally, Dollywood’s own Start Fresh program educates hosts about food allergies and cross-contact processes as well.
- Next season is going to be better than ever! The team is looking at each festival menu and not only making more options that people with food allergies can have, but making sure that they taste great and are prepared safely, too. Chef Matthew explained that Dollywood wants to provide more inclusion to allergen sensitivities in festival experiences. This was music to my ears!
- Dollywood and its chefs recognize the value of guest feedback. Not only do they review guest satisfaction surveys, they also make sure to regularly review comments and suggestions pertaining to allergies and food safety.
- Chef Matthew and his team are working to have a “champion” assigned to each email or call so that there is an even better response next season!
When it comes to providing food items that all guests can enjoy, Dollywood is watching and listening. While I do not expect Dollywood to make every dining location allergen inclusive, I’m delighted to know that Chef Matthew and the whole Dollywood team believe that my experience should be as satisfying as a guest without food allergies. I am thankful that the park I love so much has more options now and that they are taking steps to make it better for ALL guests! Additionally, if Chef Matthew and his team ever needs a taste tester for any future allergen friendly festival food items, they know where to find me!