Many restaurateurs and foodservice managers feel some level of anxiety at the prospect of serving food-allergic diners. The belief is that becoming allergy friendly will be a huge, expensive undertaking with no significant benefit to the operations’s bottom line. Actually, the opposite is true. In fact, there are a variety of "little things" that your operation can do to elevate its food allergy protocols and make a huge impact on safety, guest counts, loyalty, and profits. Some of these include:
Proactively asking diners if they have allergies. This is such a simple thing to execute that I'm surprised more places don't make it part of their basic protocol. By proactively inquiring whether your diners have food allergies, you've instantly shown that you care about their well-being and are willing to accommodate their needs, which will make a positive first impression among your customers—food-allergic or not.
Creating a communications plan. Once your server is notified of a guest's allergies, that information needs to reach the manager, chef and kitchen staff. This communication must clearly indicate which foods the guest must avoid. A manager or chef should then visit the food-allergic guest's table to double check their allergens and discuss how their meal will be specially prepared. Ensure that whatever communications protocol you put in place, it's well defined throughout the entire process—from front of the house, to manager and back of the house, back to server, and, ultimately, the guest.
Visually demonstrating allergy friendly meals. Some operations serve allergy friendly meals on different colored or different shaped plates (e.g., square instead of round). Others use frill picks to visually convey special meals. Whatever system you choose, alert your entire staff (and your customers) about what the frill picks and colored or square plates mean. This will help your staff and customers avoid accidentally mixing up meals.
Making simple food substitutions. The most accommodating operations are willing to provide food substitutions—such as dairy-free bread or egg-free pasta—for their guests with food allergies and intolerances. Stocking your kitchen with basic substitutions (such as soy milk, gluten-free pastas, nut-free oils, etc.) will make a huge difference in your ability to prepare allergy friendly meals and satisfy your food-allergic guests.
Check in with your guests. Make it part of your policy to have a manager bring allergy friendly meals to guests’ tables personally, check in with these guests during the meal and ensure the individuals are comfortable and satisfied. Emphasize how happy you are to accommodate food-allergic guests and reiterate your commitment to allergy friendly practices.
Embrace training and education. Food allergy training doesn't need to be expensive or time-consuming to be effective. Programs like ServSafe and MenuTrinfo have valuable information that help restaurants and operations of all sizes elevate their food allergy protocols. And many have benefitted from attending the AllergyEats Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs and Food Service Professionals, which offers actionable tips from best-in-class speakers. The next AllergyEats conference will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 21 in New York City.
Learning how to satisfy your food-allergic guests is not complex or expensive, yet the benefits to your business—and its bottom line—can be substantial.