The number of guests that request special orders due to an allergy or a dietary choice that limits the intake of ingredients such as gluten, dairy, or soy seems to be growing every year. In fact, it is estimated that one in three U.S. adults want to eliminate or reduce gluten from their diet. Whether because of increasing awareness or savvy marketers, much of the population is now eating gluten-free despite not having celiac disease—an autoimmune disorder that affects about 1% of the population. On the other hand, you don’t have to have celiac disease in order to just simply feel better by not eating foods that contain gluten—a substance found in wheat, barley and rye.
Because of this discrepancy, some restaurateurs are failing to take the safeguards that ensure the meals that they list as dairy or gluten-free truly are free of these ingredients. And then the unthinkable happens and a person with true allergies eats a bite of something they are allergic to and goes into anaphylactic shock—a potentially deadly reaction.
Food allergies affect approximately 15 million Americans and are responsible for anywhere from 150 to 200 deaths every year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately half of all allergy-related deaths that occurred over a 13-year period were caused by food from a restaurant or other food service establishment.
The bottom line: Even though most of your guests that request special menu items are not truly “allergic” to the item they are trying to avoid, it’s important to honor their requests and let them know that you take their dietary concerns seriously. Unfortunately, it takes much more than simple menu planning to ensure allergy-free dining.
Marissa Costonis, a Certified Health Coach and author of Change Bites, 5 Change Management Strategies to Transform Your Health, developed three strategies restaurants can use to help build loyalty with food sensitive customers.
- Master a few high-allergens first to gain customer confidence.
One of the main problems when implementing an allergy program at your restaurant is the lack of space in the BOH. This makes the ability to create definite areas where you produce specific food especially difficult, yet it is the cornerstone in preventing cross-contamination. For this reason, Costonis recommends picking just one or two foods to start.
- Create a sense of urgency and strong customer service.
Whether eating a bite of unwanted dairy results in a mild stomach ache, a little bloating, or a trip to the hospital—every customer should be treated as if their request is urgent and vital to their health and well-being. It doesn’t really matter if you or some of your crew feel the request is a little “whacky.” It is your paying customer, who you would like to become a loyal patron, making the request.
- Create a zero-tolerance process.
This is the step that requires a creative mind and a bit of engineering skills. Zero-tolerance requires a step-by-step approach that includes how the kitchen is laid out including dedicated cooking spaces that ensure no cross-contamination during the food handling process. Cross-contamination easily occurs when preparation surfaces, cookware, or utensils are exposed to a specific allergen. It includes how the meal is marked and if there are utensils and pots designated for specific allergy-free foods.
Harder Than it Appears
From January 2014 to February 2015, the CDC conducted a survey on 278 restaurants in order to gauge their training practices regarding food allergies. Unfortunately, the results were not exemplary.
Fewer than half of the restaurant managers had received training in food allergies while just 40.8 percent of food workers and 33.3 percent of servers reported receiving any type of training in this area. In addition, few had separate equipment or areas designated for the preparation of allergen-free food.
Your loyal customers need to feel total confidence in your desire and ability to produce food that does not contain the product that they are trying to avoid. Whether they are avoiding due to an intolerance issue or a true food allergy, they should be met with the same diligent preparation procedures. In so doing, you will obtain true loyalty, not just from those that require special considerations, but also from their friends and family. On the other hand, don’t jump on the gluten-, dairy-free bandwagon unless you can guarantee, with confidence, that your food has no trace of gluten or dairy. Someone’s life may depend on it.