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9 key takeaways from the most allergy-friendly restaurant chains

AllergyEats, the leading guide to allergy-friendly restaurants nationwide, just released its 2016 list of the Top 10 Most Allergy-Friendly Restaurant Chains in the country, based on ratings and feedback from the food allergy community. The AllergyEats ratings are based solely on how well restaurants have accommodated food-allergic diners, and not on other factors, like ambiance, service or food quality. The establishments on this list have developed strong food allergy protocols, offering valuable takeaways for other foodservice professionals striving to elevate their food allergy practices.  

This year’s list includes five large chains: Maggiano’s Little Italy, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Mellow Mushroom, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro; and five small chains: Rainforest Café, Burtons Grill, Legal Sea Foods, Not Your Average Joe’s, Joe’s American Bar & Grill and Legal Sea Foods.

As these organizations are finding, being allergy-friendly is not only the right thing to do, it’s also a smart business decision. By accommodating food-allergic guests, foodservice establishments generally experience increased customers, sales, loyalty and profits. In fact, venues that cater to the food allergy community can increase their profits significantly—by 25 percent or more.  

All foodservice organizations and professionals can learn valuable practices from these chains, including:

•    Create an allergy-friendly culture. Emphasize the importance of being allergy-friendly to staff throughout your organization. Provide training, tools and support and ensure that your team takes food allergies very seriously. Rainforest Café has made allergy-friendliness part of its corporate culture, creating a hospitable environment that makes all guests—including those with food allergies—feel comfortable and confident. Not Your Average Joe’s has a similar culture, vowing to do whatever it takes to make the guest experience exceptional.

•    Train your staff! Food allergy training is the single most important thing that your organization can do to become more allergy-friendly, as the restaurants on this list have demonstrated. In-depth, ongoing food allergy training should be required for all staff. Train continuously, more than just once a year. 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.  

•    Proactively ask guests if they have food allergies. Communication is an important part of any successful food allergy protocol, and asking about potential food allergies proactively—as Legal Sea Foods does so well—is such a simple thing to execute. By doing so, you'll boost your guests’ confidence in dining with you, demonstrating that you care about their well-being and are willing to accommodate their needs.

•    Create a communications plan. Have a communications plan in place that makes all relevant staff (in both the front of the house and back) aware of a diner’s food allergy restrictions. A manager or chef should speak with the food-allergic customer to double check his allergens and discuss how his meal will be specially prepared. Then, the safe preparation requirements must be communicated with every person involved in preparing and serving the food.

•    Visually indicate allergy-friendly meals. Some organizations serve allergy-friendly meals on different colored or different shaped plates. Burton’s Grill, for instance, serves food-allergic guests’ meals on square plates and affixes special stickers to allergy-friendly takeout orders. Others use frill picks or colored baskets, like Red Robin’s purple frill pick system. Whatever approach you choose, alert your entire staff (and your customers) about your system, to help avoid accidental mix-ups and boost guest confidence.

•    Customize your food allergy protocols. Implementing food allergy protocols is critical, but there’s no one-size-fits-all guideline. Customize your approach in ways that work best for your team and your facility. 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 your staff can easily follow consistently.

•    Use allergy-friendly products. Stock your commercial kitchen with dairy-free milks, gluten-free breads and pastas, nut-free oils, prepackaged desserts free of the Big 8 allergens and other allergy-friendly items. Then use these items to create special, customized meals for food-allergic guests. P.F. Chang’s stocks gluten-free soy sauce and other allergy-friendly ingredients, enabling it to effectively prepare allergy-friendly meals.

•    Embrace technology. Leverage technology to better communicate with—and accommodate—food-allergic diners. For instance, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers—which has been on the AllergyEats Most Allergy-Friendly list consistently for several years—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. P.F. Chang’s utilizes an online matrix outlining the ingredients of every component of every dish. All of their restaurants’ staff can access this matrix to see at a glance which dishes contain guests’ allergens, allowing them to suggest substitutions accordingly.  

•    Understand that 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 accommodating venues through word-of-mouth, high ratings on the AllergyEats app and website, via social media and more. Treat food-allergic guests well and you'll have customers for life.  


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