Peanut butter and jelly are a perfect match, most would agree. But the pairing of a new PB&J cafe and a children’s museum has sparked calls for a quick separation.
The Boston Children’s Museum and an adjacent storefront and cafe responded to a cascade of comments this weekend from parents on Facebook, many expressing concerns that children with peanut allergies would be accidentally exposed to the eatery’s namesake dish: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
On Friday, Maine-based Stonewall Kitchen opened its latest location in the Fort Point neighborhood beside the museum. Within the store, which features homes goods and specialty foods, the company also opened the PB & J Café, where a variety of the sandwiches can be purchased to-go.
“We are thrilled to announce that Stonewall Kitchen‘s new PB & J cafe is NOW OPEN inside the Boston Children’s Museum building!” museum officials wrote on Facebook Friday. “Come on in for delicious bites and refreshments — the perfect pairing after a trip to the Museum!”
But parents on the museum’s Facebook page were quick to call out the decision to allow the cafe, citing the risks involved for children with mild to severe peanut allergies.
“This is the dumbest decision ever,” one parent wrote. “Guess we’ll be visiting the children’s museum in Providence instead. Completely short-sighted decision.”
After receiving hundreds of comments — many from aggrieved parents — museum officials posted a statement Saturday to assuage their fears.
“The safety and wellbeing of all children is our top priority,” museum officials wrote. “Stonewall Kitchen is an independent company, and separate from the Museum space . . . It’s important to note that no food of any kind is allowed in the Museum exhibit halls. We understand this may not allay all of your fears, but we are committed to your safety and will continue to monitor this over the coming weeks.”
The message included a lengthy statement from Stonewall Kitchen about its food offerings, which are made with artisan jams and jellies.
“Please be assured that we genuinely understand the gravity that this allergen poses for some children (and adults) and are diligent to follow all regulations and protocols to keep people safe,” the company wrote. “As a food and restaurant company regulated by the FDA and numerous other agencies, we manufacture and serve products with nearly every major allergen, so we are acutely aware of the risks.”
Stonewall Kitchen said the museum had previously leased the space to Au Bon Pain and McDonald’s, “two restaurants which also feature numerous allergens in their menu.”
While there’s an entrance from the museum to the store and café, it’s through a separate set of doors past the museum’s “brown bag” lunch area, a section that doesn’t ban peanut butter and other allergens, the company noted.
“That entrance, as well as the primary entrances from Congress Street, also feature very visible allergen warnings on the doors, consistent with those on our other stores and café,” the company wrote.
In a follow-up statement to The Boston Globe, John Stiker, Stonewall Kitchen’s chief executive, said “you cannot enter the museum itself directly from the store or vice versa unless you pass the communal lunch area.”
“Some folks seem confused that the café is inside the museum . . . it is not,” he said.
Some parents seemed less concerned about children with peanut allergies getting near the sandwiches than about those who might eat them before rushing off and touching the museum’s interactive surfaces and displays.
“Even with these ‘protocols’ kids will still be eating here and then running through the museum contaminating everything they touch with peanuts,” one person wrote in response to the cafe’s statement. “Allergic children can have life-threatening reactions just to touching their allergen.”
Others called the restaurant’s response “ridiculous” and some said they would no longer visit the museum. But others dismissed the concerns as an overreaction.
“We’re excited and can’t wait to visit! Yes, allergies are a problem (in our household as well), but if you don’t feel comfortable eating there then don’t,” a parent from Rockland wrote. “No reason to not take the kids to the museum.”
Symptoms of a peanut allergy can range from children getting itchy skin or hives to anaphylaxis, “a life-threatening reaction that can cause trouble breathing, swelling in the throat, fainting, dizziness and a drop in blood pressure,” according to Boston Children’s Hospital’s website.
“A peanut allergy is an abnormal response of the body to the proteins found in peanuts,” the hospital’s website says. “It’s a type of food allergy that is becoming more common in children.”
Dr. Scott Sicherer, director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, said he could understand why some parents might be concerned about children potentially visiting an interactive museum right after eating peanut butter from the cafe.
The main risk for people with a peanut allergy is ingestion, not being near it or smelling it, Sicherer said. Still, some people are sensitive to very trace amounts.
“A wisp of peanut butter ingested could be a significant problem,” said Sicherer.
The cafe offers scones, muffins, chowder, and soup and is looking into more alternatives to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, said Stiker, Stonewall Kitchen’s chief executive.
“Certainly we understand the sensitivity around this topic in general and take it very seriously,” Stiker said. “We are listening to the concerns and considering our options of how we can be more inclusive.”
They chose the name PB & J Café because they thought it was “cute” but never meant to cause any concern.
“The Café isn’t really all about peanut butter,” he said. “But it seems to have escalated based in part on the name . . . so we are going to re-look at whether that’s the right name for this café.”