‘I’m Trying Not to Die’
By Octavio Serrano
Shandee Chernow rolled out of bed to find her lower lip had “blown up.”
“I can’t even explain to you how large it was. As though Mike Tyson punched me, and all his force landed in my lower lip,” the North Phoenix resident recalls.
Terrified, Chernow quickly picked up her cellphone to send her father, a physician, a photo. He knew right away his 28-year-old daughter developed a food allergy. In her case, it was pork.
According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), food allergies are on the rise, with 32 million Americans having them. Furthermore, Chernow says some people don’t even realize they’re allergic to certain foods. The reactions can occur with foods people have eaten many times before.
Inspired by her experience, Chernow founded CertiStar in 2017, a company dedicated to improving the dining experience of people who have food allergies. Restaurants and businesses, as well as schools, can use CertiStar to create a safe and versatile menu for their guests.
Prior to CertiStar, Chernow worked as a sales rep for MicroStrategy, a business intelligence company, and her food allergy complicated her job.
“When you have food allergies, going out to eat is very difficult. I was selling software, which involved a lot of going out to eat,” Chernow says. “I got tired of playing Russian roulette with my life every night. I figured out there was a better way, so I quit my job and started CertiStar and the rest is a little bit of history.”
CertiStar created a web platform MenuStar. Restaurants can input their menus and quickly provide healthy options for their guests. If a server is taking an order, for example, and a customer has an allergy, the server can quickly input the allergy into MenuStar, and it will highlight safe menu items.
On MenuStar, when a dish is “green,” it means it is safe for that customer; yellow means the recipe can be altered for the guest’s needs; and red means that recipe is not suitable.
“The goal would be that any food-allergic person can have virtually the same dining experience at any of those types of places as any nonfood-allergic person,” Chernow says. “And the truth is that right now, it is virtually impossible for that to happen.”
Chernow says folks with allergies are faced with limited menu options. With MenuStar, servers can confidently offer a wider selection from the menu.
“It’s nice to have many options, as opposed to one or two that may not fit in with what you were in the mood for,” Chernow says.
Chompie’s Vice President Frank Lara says his restaurant has used MenuStar for two years. Thanks to the MenuStar, Lara says Chompie’s servers don’t have to guess anymore when recommending menu items for people with allergies.
“I’ll tell you that the staff, kitchen and managers are a lot more relaxed when it comes to that question,” Lara says.
Every Chompie’s location keeps a tablet for servers, and guests have responded positively to the MenuStar.
“It’s made the guest experience much better for those who come in with their family and have concerns about food allergies and sometimes they don’t even eat because they don’t want to take a chance,” Lara says. “What this MenuStar does is it allow that guest to feel comfortable and eat along with the rest of the family or business group, so they don’t feel left out.”
When asked where her passion for CertiStar comes from, Chernow jokingly says “I’m trying not to die.”
“Food allergies are a really interesting thing because it’s been a quiet, under-the-radar topic for a very long time,” Chernow adds.
With the increase in awareness regarding food allergies, Chernow and her team continue to bring the Valley, a safe and healthy way to prevent an unwanted allergy reaction. Chernow says her team is always available to anyone who has any questions.
“Food allergy people don’t want to be a pain in the neck. They don’t want to be that guy at the restaurant. So, you see people have the tendency to make themselves smaller and accommodate the restaurant as opposed to the other way,” Chernow says. “I’d love to see those people standing tall, not shrinking down.”
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