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Three ingredients for an allergy-friendly restaurant

Tips from the Inaugural Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs to help ensure safety, maximize customer loyalty and boost the bottom line

Editor's note: The following column is from Healthy Dining, a company that has been at the forefront of restaurant nutrition since 1990. This series provides restaurant operators with information on industry-related nutrition topics. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Nation's Restaurant News.

More than ever, restaurants are exploring how to accommodate their guests’ nutrition-related needs. The first-of-its kind Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs held in Boston on Oct. 16 provided bottom-line justification, practical guidance and some heart-tugging inspiration to help restaurants develop a program to meet the special dietary requirements of guests with food allergies.

Speakers included executives from Legal Sea Foods, Not Your Average Joe’s Restaurant, Boston-based Jake’s Seafood, the National Restaurant Association and the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, as well as prominent physicians and allergen experts.

Paul Antico, champion allergen advocate and organizer of the conference, is a former mutual fund manager (he managed one of the largest small cap funds worth more than $5 billion) who walked away from his career to help raise his five kids, three of whom have life-threatening food allergies. Antico launched AllergyEats, a national online guide offering consumer-rated reviews on restaurants’ allergy-friendly practices.

“I wanted to dedicate the same energy and drive that I had channeled into making money for others into helping make sure my kids and other food-allergic families could enjoy a higher quality of life,” he said. “So I retired from the investment industry to give AllergyEats 100 percent.”

Antico shared three main ingredients that every allergy-friendly restaurant must have to ensure safety and also maximize customer loyalty and bottom-line revenue:

1. Recognition of the market. Antico emphasized that the food allergic community is a “large, growing and important market segment that provides a veto vote and a loyal following.” He added, “A loyal following brings a financial advantage.”

Antico’s research shows that 4 to 5 percent of the population has a food allergy, and another 1 percent has celiac disease and must avoid gluten. 

“Ninety percent of those with food allergies and sensitivities want to dine out and will be loyal to restaurants that accommodate their needs,” said Antico. “That provides a huge financial advantage for those restaurants that recognize and respond to this market in a responsible way. It’s good for business.”

Antico utilizes his financial expertise to help restaurants understand the bottom-line benefits. “ROI is important, and the loyal food allergic market can increase sales and profits by 10 to 25 percent,” he noted. “But the clock is ticking, and restaurants need to jump onboard sooner rather than later to reap the benefits.”

2. Commitment to excellence. Antico emphasized that restaurants must commit 100 percent if they want to gain a loyal following. “It doesn’t take much money to do this, but it does take tons of commitment,” he said.

Pleasing guests with allergies is the “foundation of our guest obsession,” said Steve Silverstein, CEO of Not Your Average Joe’s, which has 17 locations. “We are dedicated to the highest quality guest satisfaction, and we always want to give the guest exactly what they want,” he explained. “That’s who we are. It is not a problem since we make everything from scratch.”

Approximately 3 percent of all orders at Not Your Average Joe’s have an allergy notation and about 1 percent of them have a gluten notation. Silverstein estimates that about 10 percent of the chain’s business is due to their loyal following of guests with food allergies.

“The numbers and sales are important, but more important is guest satisfaction,” he said. “I have lots of stories from our guests about how we made their lives better because they are able to dine out at our restaurant and feel confident that we will serve them a meal they can enjoy.”

3. Training and execution. Restaurants that accommodate guests with allergies must commit to developing stringent procedures and protocols, providing a separate cooking area and utensils, providing ongoing staff training and auditing, and initiating effective communication strategies with guests.

Rich Vellante, executive chef of Legal Sea Foods, with 32 locations on the East coast and more than 3500 employees, noted that training is of utmost importance to their family-owned business. “We are dedicated to making sure our guests with food allergies feel welcomed and assured that we will handle their requests professionally and responsibly,” he said. “The first thing we teach new employees is our commitment to meeting the needs of our guests, especially regarding allergies. We have strong training programs and protocols in place.”

When a guest has food allergies, both the general manager and the chef visit the table to talk with the guest and understand what ingredients they need to avoid and what they would like the chef to prepare for them. The meal is served by the general manager with special ‘doubling plating,’ which symbolizes the meal was specially prepared.

Massachusetts is the first state to require restaurants to meet three specific allergen-related requirements: 1) display a food allergy awareness poster, 2) include a statement on menus and 3) have a manager certified in food protection, which includes allergen awareness. Rhode Island has recently enacted similar legislation.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) worked with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to develop an online course to comply with the legislation. Any operator, even outside of Massachusetts, can access the Massachusetts allergen training program and benefit from the information.

"Peter Christie, President of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said it best at the opening of the conference: 'the main culprit to food safety is ignorance.' Being more informed is priceless,” said Kevin Scott, Northeast Regional Sales Manager for the NRA's ServSafe® program.

Healthy Dining’s registered dietitians can help your restaurant with allergen and gluten declaration. For more information, contact Nicole Ring, RD, at [email protected].

Contact Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., at [email protected].

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