Split-Rail

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In honor of Pride Month, we are thrilled to feature Split-Rail, a LGBTQ-owned restaurant and a haven to the food allergy community. Chef and owner Zoe Schor is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts and has a sesame intolerance and her Chicago-based restaurant is 100% nut-free, including the desserts and alcohol. Her experiences dining out with food allergies and with friends and family with specialized diets fueled her desire to take the embarrassment out of dining out with food allergies and build trust with her customers in her own restaurant.

 

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Feel-good food

Split-Rail is a cozy, eclectic neighborhood spot known for delicious comfort food dishes. They’ve reopened to the public this month after operating pick up only during the pandemic with a redesigned space and updated menu that includes both fan favorite dishes like their fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits, plus exciting new additions. Split-Rail is located in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood at 2500 W Chicago Ave.

Allergy-friendly since day one

Shortly before we opened in 2017, I had plans to visit a couple restaurants with my family and a friend. We had several allergies and specialized diets between us so I called both restaurants and asked if they could accommodate us. They both pulled out all the stops and their hospitality really made an impact on me. Many restaurants would have written us off because of our party’s dietary needs but these places went above and beyond—they earned us as lifelong customers and I wanted to bring that same welcomeness to Split-Rail.

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It’s a hospitality business

I want to take any embarrassment out of dining out with food allergies. Our servers always ask if people have any allergies or dietary restrictions, every single time. It’s like anything else in the hospitality industry—if you’re really thirsty, you can flag someone down and ask for a glass of water, but isn’t it nicer if it’s brought to you? If you have a severe allergy you can certainly bring it up, but isn’t it nicer if it’s asked of you? It feels much less like a special request when it’s being brought up by the server right away.

Peace of mind and building trust

Our guests need to be able to trust us when we say our restaurant is nut-free—that’s why we’re so strict about it that we don’t allow our staff to bring any nuts into the restaurant, even as a snack. If a customer has a nut allergy our servers will share with them that the chef does too so they know we take allergies seriously. Please note that we do have coconut on the menu and don’t consider it to be a tree nut.

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Tell us about your process for taking care of a customer with food allergies.

It starts with training. All of our managers have to take an online course to get allergy certifications. Our server training also has allergens built into it and we provide servers with a reference guide of all ingredient information with any allergens noted. Servers follow a strict process of notifying the kitchen when there is an allergy, even if someone is ordering something without their allergens in it, so that there are multiple protections in place.

Beyond nut allergies

We can accommodate almost any allergy and dietary preference. We’re known for our fried chicken, which of course is always nut-free, but we also offer a gluten-free version. When I go out to eat with my friends and family, the places that take the best care of our allergies and specialized diets are the ones that get our business. I think there’s a lot of value in that so it’s important to me that we’re able to make accommodations and provide everyone with a great meal.

Behind the scenes

We use vegetable oil in our fryers, which are also always nut-free. We have a dedicated gluten free fryer which is used for our gluten free fried chicken. I think the gluten free fried chicken brings people in because it’s something you don’t see very often and the dedicated fryer is an important part of it.

Saving room for dessert

Our desserts are also 100% nut-free (excluding coconut). Our new menu includes a Summer Strawberry Cake and a gluten-free Butter Mochi Bundt. We also offer, for anyone plant-based or gluten free, Pretty Cool Ice Cream pops. Please note they provide detailed allergen information on their website.

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Adults have food allergies too

Our commitment to being nut-free also extends to our bar. My business partner Michelle Szot, who manages the beverage and alcohol part of the business, developed something she calls Oat-geat to replace Orgeat, a common almond-based bar product. 

The tables turning

After the positive experiences I’ve had dining out, it’s been great to be able to give people with food allergies positive experiences at our restaurant. We’ve had some memorable moments, like when one family who was usually afraid to eat out visited with their nut-allergic son and he was able to eat everything on our menu without fear. We’ve also had a kid who couldn’t eat gluten and was able to eat fried chicken for the first time.

Favorite thing on the menu at Split-Rail? 

That’s a hard question! My go-to answer is whatever I’m working on. I like learning new techniques and playing around with things. I started making bagels during the pandemic and I think we make some of the best bagels in the city. We’ll be serving our bagels on our brunch menu—our first brunch service will be this Sunday, July 4th and after that we’ll be offering brunch every Saturday and Sunday.

Favorite allergy-friendly restaurants in Chicago?

I really like Mi Tocaya Antojeria, a woman-owned Mexican restaurant, and Scofflaw, a good spot for bar food. My partner and I have also been going to Heritage Caviar Bar a lot recently for their happy hour with $1 oysters and martinis. Formento’s and Swift + Sons did a great job of accommodating my nut allergies and the gluten free and vegan members of our party when I visited with my family and friends.

Favorite allergy-friendly restaurants outside of your hometown?

We were recently visiting New Orleans and found a couple really cool spots that were good for my nut allergies: Clesi’s and another called Marjie’s. We also went to Felix’s for chargrilled oysters—classic New Orleans food.

You can make reservations at Split-Rail here and follow them on Instagram @splitrailchicago. For more information, see their reviews on the Spokin App and visit splitrailchicago.com.

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