Becoming allergy-friendly is good for business. As a longtime financial professional, I see the significant, positive impact that allergy-friendly practices have on food industry businesses' bottom lines, including increased customers, sales, loyalty and profits. And as the father of three food-allergic children, I sincerely want more foodservice professionals to elevate their food allergy training, education and protocols so they're better able to serve my children—and the 15 million other food-allergic individuals in the U.S.
Recently, my company, AllergyEats, the leading guide to allergy-friendly restaurants nationwide, held its third annual AllergyEats Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs & Food Service Professionals. The event teaches attendees—restaurateurs, chefs, college dining hall managers and other food industry professionals—how to increase their “allergy-friendliness,” thus improving safety and boosting their business benefits. This year's event, held in New York City, featured all-star experts sharing actionable tips, best practices, food substitutions and much more.
These best-in-class panelists—including allergy-friendly restaurateurs, premier food allergy trainers, prominent physicians/allergists, a university culinary development manager and others—provided valuable tips, tools and takeaways. They also discussed the positive results they've experienced from being allergy-friendly, specifically increased customers, loyalty and profits.
Key takeaways from the event included:
• Accommodating food allergies is good for business. I have five children, three of whom have food allergies. My wife and I pick restaurants that can accommodate our food-allergic kids, especially my middle son, who is allergic to tree nuts, peanuts, sesame and dairy. The food-allergic guest is the veto vote, dictating which restaurant their entire party will visit. By winning the food-allergic guest's business, restaurants will also attract their friends and family, which is a party of seven for our immediate family. With 5 percent of Americans having food allergies, there's a huge winnable market share! Allergy-friendly establishments can boost their revenue dramatically and increase their profits up to 24 percent or more by learning how to safely and comfortably accommodate the food allergy community.
• Allergy-friendly protocols are vital for all commercial kitchens—not just restaurants. There's a dichotomy in kitchens between those that understand and properly accommodate food-allergic diners and those that don't. This suggests a great opportunity for organizations to minimize risk as well as increase business benefits by becoming allergy-friendly.
• Becoming allergy-friendly doesn't need to be expensive, complicated or time-consuming. Our experts shared a variety of ideas that are easy and inexpensive to implement: proactively ask guests if they have food allergies, mark allergy-friendly meals with frill picks, use allergy-friendly vendors, and designate separate equipment and prep areas for allergy-friendly meals. Food allergy training can also be inexpensive, with tremendous benefits.
• Protocols can be customized. There's no one-size-fits-all set of accepted food allergy protocols. Customize your approach in ways that work best for your employees and guests. It doesn't matter if you serve allergy-friendly meals on square plates or in yellow baskets—what does matter is that you design and implement effective procedures that can be followed by your staff.
• Embrace technology. Leverage technology to better communicate with—and accommodate—food-allergic diners. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers has interactive online menus, allowing guests to input their food allergies and immediately see what they can (and can't) eat at Red Robin restaurants. The University of Connecticut offers an app that lets students instantly access menus at all campus dining halls.
• Ongoing training is imperative. In-depth, ongoing food allergy training should be required for all staff. Train staff continuously—ideally more than once a year—and immediately train all new employees about food allergies when they're hired. Do more than just show a short, basic food allergy video. Ensure that your entire staff is aware of food allergies in general, as well as your specific protocols.
• Use allergy-friendly products. Stock your kitchen with dairy-free milks, gluten-free breads and pastas, prepackaged desserts free of the Big 8 allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean fish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy) and other allergy-friendly items. Then use these items to create special, customized meals for food-allergic guests.
• The food allergy community is large, loyal and vocal. When foodservice professionals work hard to accommodate the food allergy community, these guests become loyal customers and vocal advocates, recommending the dining location through word of mouth, online chat boards and high ratings on the AllergyEats app and website. Treat food-allergic guests well and you'll have customers for life.