Imagine for a second that you have an allergy to peanuts. Even the slightest contact with them could cause serious health problems or even death. Now imagine that you also want to spend an entire day at a theme park. Obviously, it is possible but with most parks it presents a number of obstacles and dangers that may just be too much to bear. The Fresh Start program at Dollywood aims to minimize these concerns so that families can create "Memories Worth Repeating" without the hassle of having to worry constantly about food allergies. The program which started at Dollywood's Splash Country over four years ago has now spread to all of the Herschend Family Entertainment Parks. Joe Lindsey, Director of Food Services at Dollywood, was first confronted with this issue when a guest expressed his frustration over not being able to enjoy the full experience at the park. After that meeting, he was determined to make sure that others did not experience the same frustrations; frustrations that were ultimately keeping some guests from fully enjoying their Dollywood experience.
From this was born Fresh Start. Fresh Start's goal is simple--Give every guest the same opportunity to enjoy a meal with family. Though a simple goal, the program itself requires an intense amount of time and dedication on the part of all those working in food services to accomplish. First, a guest must inform the host of his or her food allergy. The manager on duty then specifically identifies what allergy or allergies need to be prepared for. The host uses this time to completely sanitize the tables, chairs, menus and all items on the table. In the kitchen, an area that is completely sectioned off from the rest of kitchen containing all the equipment needed for food preparation is readied for use. A sealed kit containing sanitized utensils such as cutting boards, knives, tongs, towels and gloves is opened. One cook handles the entire meal from start to finish. When the meal is done, plates and utensils also in the Start Fresh kit are used to plate the meal. Finally, the chef brings out the food to the guest to ensure that no cross contamination occurs.
The program is fully implemented in two restaurants at Dollywood where nearly every food allergy can be handled. Eight more restaurants at the park can deal with many of the major allergies. Amazingly, the park charges no extra money to prepare food in this way. Even in cases where the ingredients may cost more money such as gluten free hamburger buns, the park charges no extra money. The goal according to Joe Lindsey is to "create that family experience" and "providing family time where they can bond and creates memories that they can go back and talk about."
Over the few years that Fresh Start has been implemented, it has had numerous successes. However, one stands out vividly in Joe Lindsey's mind. One particular family from Chattanooga had a daughter named Katie who had severe food allergies and had experienced several episodes of anaphylactic shock over the course of her life. Because of this, Katie rarely ate out or visited places that weren't completely safe. The family through research had stumbled upon Dollywood's Start Fresh program and wanted to enjoy a day at the park. After contact with the parent, Dollywood and Mr. Lindsey assured the family that Katie would be safe. It was the first time that the family could go on an outing together and be able to enjoy the day without concern. "That's probably been the most rewarding story and the most successful one" stated Lindsey who added that the both Katie and the family were quite emotional and grateful for the efforts that the park put into creating memories for them.
Overall, the Start Fresh program has been a huge success at not only Dollywood but across the entire family of Herschend Family Entertainment parks. However, even though they have experienced great successes, Joe Lindsey and his department are striving to make the program better and even more accommodating each year. Studying the latest research and relying on those people who have food allergies are the greatest resources which, in turn, lead to changes that make the program better each year. "We're not perfect yet, but we continue to work on it daily" states Lindsey, adding that this is "what we want to be noted for, we want to make our guests feel special."