As an advocate for the food allergy community, I can tell you that people with food allergies wish every foodservice facility would become more allergy-friendly. Yet, as a businessperson myself, I recognize that we all have to make choices and set priorities that are important for the financial health of our businesses. Fortunately, these two concepts are actually very much aligned. A basic financial analysis clearly demonstrates that foodservice establishments that become more allergy-friendly can significantly increase their sales, customers, loyalty and profits.
As a former stock fund manager with 17 years’ experience at Fidelity Investments, I’ve leveraged my background as a financial analyst to determine the economic value of becoming allergy-friendly—and it is substantial. I can show that accommodating food-allergic diners can boost restaurants’ profits by as much as 24 percent or more! The business benefits for other foodservice establishments—including college dining halls, event venues, stadiums, amusement parks, etc. —can also be tremendous.
5-plus percent of the U.S. population has food allergies or intolerances. When dining out, these individuals are the “veto vote” for their parties, influencing a much larger percentage of total customers—roughly 10 to 15 percent or more. Further, the food allergy community is extremely loyal to foodservice establishments that make them feel safe (and they’re very vocal about their experiences through word-of-mouth conversations, on review sites like AllergyEats, in social media forums, via online chat rooms, etc.). According to Living Without Magazine, “92% of food-allergic guests will return frequently to the same eating establishment after a positive eating-out experience.”
Look, for example, at Disney World, widely known as the gold standard for accommodating food allergies. Restaurants and cafeterias throughout the theme parks and hotels have proven themselves to be extremely allergy-friendly over the last decade. Since 2005, as word spread about Disney’s food allergy dining expertise, food-allergic families have gone there in droves. Many parents actually plan expensive Disney World vacations primarily to give their food-allergic children their first meals out! This positive word-of-mouth praise has increased Disney’s food allergy (and overall) business substantially. To wit:
• In 2005, Disney World served 52,000 special dietary meals
• By 2009, Disney World served 192,000 special dietary meals
• In 2009, Disney World and Disneyland (combined) served 330,000 special dietary meals
• By 2012, Disney World and Disneyland (combined) served 625,000 special dietary meals
As you can see, over the past 10 years, Disney‘s efforts to expertly accommodate food-allergic guests drove huge volume increases. Fortunately, this kind of success is replicable in almost any foodservice establishment. Consider these stats:
• Food allergies affect roughly 4 to 5 percent of the U.S. population (6 to 8 percent of children) (Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America)
• Celiac disease has been diagnosed in about 1 percent of the US population (Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America)
• Non-celiac gluten intolerance impacts approximately 1 to 6 percent of the US population (National Foundation for Celiac Awareness)
• 10 percent of Americans are believed to have at least one food intolerance (NIH, NAID)
• Up to 30 percent of the general population believes they have a food allergy (JACI)
• About 30 percent of U.S. adults want to cut down on gluten in their diets and 20 percent want to see more gluten-free options in restaurants (NPD Group & Boulder Brands)
Unfortunately, food allergies are a growth industry as the number of new diagnoses continues to increase significantly each year. Further, food-allergic children are growing up and starting their own families, and a genetic component to food allergies seems likely. Additionally, adult-onset food allergies and gluten intolerance are also growing at an alarming rate. Thus, the financial opportunity is growing accordingly, and businesses risk losing market share if they ignore this population.
As the father of five children—three of whom have food allergies—I avoid foodservice options that cannot (or will not) accommodate my kids’ food allergies. And when we find establishments that can prepare foods without my children’s allergens, they win our business—a party of seven. Others within the food allergy community feel similarly, vetoing non-accommodating establishments in favor of allergy-friendly venues. The feedback is clear: If a foodservice facility doesn’t have appropriate food allergy protocols in place, the food allergy community will take their business—and those of their dining companions—elsewhere.
Fortunately, the investment to become allergy-friendly is minimal, primarily one of commitment. Financially, the cost of equipment is roughly $500, while the training can be another several hundred dollars, depending on the number of individuals participating. That’s a minimal investment given the substantial payoff that’s possible as a result.
The data doesn’t lie: any foodservice organization that wants to stay competitive needs to be allergy-friendly. From a purely business perspective, it’s in foodservice professionals’ best interests to accommodate the food allergy population, which can lead to significantly higher sales, customers, loyalty and profits. Whether you’re a restaurant, hotel, cafeteria or event venue, becoming allergy-friendly can boost your bottom line tremendously.