In microbial ecosystems, species not only compete for common resources but may also display mutualistic interactions as a result from metabolic cross-feeding. Such mutualism can lead to bistability. Depending on the initial population sizes, species will either survive or go extinct. Various phenomenological models have been suggested to describe bistability in mutualistic systems. However, these models do not account for interaction mediators such as nutrients. In contrast, nutrient-explicit models do not provide an intuitive understanding of what causes bistability. Here, we reduce a theoretical nutrient-explicit model of two mutualistic cross-feeders in a chemostat, uncovering an explicit relation to a growth model with an Allee effect. We show that the dilution rate in the chemostat leads to bistability by turning a weak Allee effect into a strong Allee effect. This happens as long as there is more production than consumption of cross-fed nutrients. Thanks to the explicit relationship of the reduced model with the underlying experimental parameters, these results allow to predict the biological conditions that sustain or prevent the survival of mutualistic species.