While our inn, Kamesei Ryokan is a traditional onsen ryokan, as the proprietor (myself) is an American, we try to incorporate some touches of American-style hospitality. One of those touches is to serve home-made cookies as the tea sweets for the tea we provide in the guest rooms upon arrival. Nagano Prefecture is famous for its soba buckwheat noodles, as it is one of the main growing regions for buckwheat in Japan. In an effort to combine the best of both worlds, I substitute 1/4 buckwheat flour for regular wheat flour when I bake the cookies.
When guests make reservations including meals, we always ask about any food allergies. However, the other night we had some guests who requested accommodation only, and no allergies were mentioned. The next morning at checkout, the gentleman accosted me, "There was soba in those cookies, right?" Apparently he had an allergic reaction (fever and nausea). He was so upset. "Every year, thousands of people die from soba allergy. You have to tell each person there is soba in those cookies!"
On one hand, we obviously don't want to kill our guests. On the other, I was upset that our positive efforts were being villified. If the man's life was at stake due to his soba allergy, wouldn't it behoove him to ask about it first? He claimed the onus was ours, as people normally don't expect soba flour in cookies. I say there is nothing unusual about it here in Nagano, Japan's soba prefecture.
Practically speaking, it is not possible to ask each and every individual guest about their allergies, soba or otherwise, as some guests come in groups and our main contact is with the group's organizer, not the individuals. However, all the guests pass by the front desk on the way to the rooms, hence a "Food Allergies?" sign on the front desk strikes me as being the most effective.
I found this design on the University of Hawaii website, and Professor Saulo there graciously granted us permission to use it. We'll give it a try and see what kind of response the sign receives.
As a side note, another inn that I am familiar with approaches problems like this by putting up warning notices. "Don't do this" or "Avoid doing that", etc. The problem is, the interior of the inn ends up getting plastered in warning signs. With our home-made cookies, the charm is that they are not some pre-wrapped, mass-produced sweet. If they were, there would no doubt be a warning label that soba, nuts, chocolate and other allergens are included. While there is a need for warning the guests, it would go against the home-made charm to plaster them with signs.
This "Food Allergies?" sign seems to strike the right balance between the need to advise the guests and our desire to avoid tacky warning signs all over the place. Time will tell if it works! Will keep you posted.