On the second night of their family beach vacation last month, 6-year-old Isaac Estes's family visited LuLu's restaurant in Destin, Florida, where he ate tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole along with his dinner of grilled chicken tenders, salad, and white rice.
It was an ordinary thing for any family to do and a typical meal for any child, but for Isaac and his family, it was a momentous occasion. Because of his severe food allergies, Isaac had never been able to eat a restaurant meal before that night.
Isaac's mother, Holly Garrett-Estes, told TODAY Parents that he was diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies when he was just four months old. "I knew something was wrong, because he was suffering from bad skin issues that would result in what looked like burns on his head and body," she said.
"The doctors continued to tell me it was just cradle cap, but I started to assume allergies," she said. "I breastfed Isaac exclusively and, unbeknownst to me, he was reacting from the foods I was eating."
Eventually, Isaac was diagnosed with a variety of severe food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, egg whites, egg yolks, wheat, both forms of dairy protein, casein, and whey. He also has sensitivities to many other foods, including some fruits and vegetables. Because Isaac has asthma, any allergic reactions are even more dangerous for him.
"Isaac is so allergic to those foods that they cannot even touch his skin," said Garrett-Estes, who lives with Isaac and his older sister Ellie, 9, in White House, Tennessee. "So if one of those allergens is on someone’s hands and they touch him, he will break out in welts everywhere they touched him."
His allergies make Isaac particularly vulnerable at school, she said. "There was a day this last year at kindergarten where someone's pizza touched his arm at lunch time, and his arm was very itchy and covered in welts from the cheese on the pizza. It is a daily, sometimes hourly, struggle.
"It is scary sending him to school, but I also do not want to hold him back from all life has to offer. Food is everywhere," she said.
In the past, his mother has always had to make food ahead of time for Isaac and bring it along to the restaurant if they wanted to eat out as a family. Then they heard about LuLu's — a restaurant owned by Lucy Buffett, sister of singer Jimmy. LuLu's not only accommodates people with food allergies, but offers multiple food allergy-sensitive menus and prepares food for them in a separate area of the kitchen to prevent cross-contamination.
"Something as simple as dropping a piece of cheese in Isaac's food could kill him, so this sounded wonderful to me," said Garrett-Estes. "For the first time, I felt like he would have the best chance of eating a safe meal out."
Garrett-Estes, her boyfriend, and 10 other members of her very supportive family drove half an hour to reach LuLu's after she talked to the manager of the restaurant over the phone and confirmed with him that they would be able to accommodate Isaac's needs.
"When the chips were first sat on the table, he looked at me with a huge smile and said, 'Is all of this for me?!'" said Garrett-Estes. "And for the first time in our lives, I was able to say, 'Yes, buddy. You can eat it all!'"
His mom said Isaac continued to be hesitant and checked with her several times during the meal to make sure the food was safe for him to eat. "We all took pictures, and I had tears in my eyes while watching him be a normal boy, eating normal food, in a seemingly normal restaurant, although LuLu’s is far from normal," said Garrett-Estes.
She posted a note to LuLu's on their Facebook page thanking them for the family's experience. The post has since gone viral, with over 24,000 likes and over 3,600 shares.
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"I don’t know if LuLu’s really knows what they did for him that night… what they did for us all," said Garrett-Estes. "As parents, we always worry. But when deadly food allergies are involved, it is so intensified that sometimes it feels like full-blown anxiety. Isaac talked about the experience the rest of the trip and still does."
She said she hopes that other restaurants might follow LuLu's lead. "I know there are so many restaurants out there that do care about their food-allergy customers. I think the difference is convincing us overprotective parents that they can keep our kids safe, which can be hard to do!
"I would love nothing more than a LuLu’s in Nashville for Isaac and all the wonderful others that suffer from food allergies," said Garrett-Estes. "I am hoping and praying that it will happen one day. Until then, our beach vacations will not be far from LuLu’s!"