Food allergies are a serious problem that millions of people deal with every day. Sometimes those reactions can even be life-threatening, which makes the allergy problem something restaurants cannot afford to ignore. And yet for quite awhile now there has been a distinct ambivalence in the food service industry when it comes to food allergies.
Part of it comes from a reluctance to change recipes to accommodate one diner – something that is difficult to do in a busy kitchen, especially when that extra work hardly translates into more money for the restaurant.
Another factor is the small yet significant minority of customers who use food allergies as an excuse to force restaurants to custom prepare their food. The problem many restaurateurs see here is a slippery slope of catering to food allergies leading to a flood of custom orders that is impossible to handle.
Finally, culinary purists, particularly in the fine dining crowd, see the removal of ingredients from their dishes as a compromise of artistic expression. This segment of the restaurant business is especially opposed to accommodating food allergy requests.
But how harmful, at least economically speaking, is it for a restaurant to refuse food allergy requests?
Luckily, Paul Antico, a former financial advisor for Fidelity Investments, has taken a Freakanomics approach to the food allergy problem and come to a provocative conclusion: accommodating food allergic customers could result in a 9% boost to a restaurant’s bottom line. He’s started a website, AllergyEats.com, to help people with food allergies find and rate restaurants based upon their ability to accommodate them.
According to a Fast Casual magazine article covering Antico’s research, nine million people with food allergies go out to eat on a regular basis and actively seek restaurants that accommodate their allergy.
When you account for the phenomenon of the “veto vote” – one food allergy sufferer in a party of potential customers will cause the entire group to go somewhere else if their needs are not met – you start to see some pretty significant cash walking out the door.
So how do you make your restaurant food allergy friendly?
The first step is to establish a procedure to deal with an allergen-related special order. Just like your food safety program, this procedure needs to be trained, enforced, and monitored.
The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network has some great guides for restaurants who want to become allergen friendly.
Here’s a summary:
First, ask these questions:
- Who will answer the questions guests have about the ingredients in menu items?
- Who will make sure the proper ingredients are used (and not used) when preparing a special order dish?
- How will you avoid cross-contamination?
- How will you deal with an allergic reaction?
To help control cross-contamination, San Jamar has a purple cutting board that makes it easy for kitchen staff to keep potentially harmful ingredients away from special orders. Color coding the rest of your utensils, like chef’s knives and tongs, will also help your staff avoid contact with allergens.
Because a food allergy sufferer’s buying power is greatly amplified by the veto vote, it makes sense for restaurants to start thinking about ways to accommodate them. If Paul Antico’s estimates are anywhere close to the actual number of customers and sales you’re leaving on the table, then you’ve got a strong incentive to start a food allergen safety program in your restaurant today.