Managing Without Milk

A few months ago, my eating habits had to undergo a drastic change – I was suddenly unable to process dairy, experiencing painful stomach cramps every time I tried even a little bit. I have several friends who are lactose intolerant, but I never fully realized the struggle they faced until I stood in their shoes, reading over menus of cream-based soups and cheese-covered pastas. Dairy is in so many more dishes than I’d ever considered, and many times I didn’t realize I’d consumed some until it was too late.

Despite 30 to 50 million Americans being lactose intolerant and dairy being one of the most common food allergies, it can be surprisingly difficult to find restaurants with good dairy-free options. Thankfully, dairy alternatives abound, making it easy for your restaurant to become more lactose-intolerant and dairy-allergy friendly.

Why Dairy-Free?

There are a number of reasons people go dairy-free. People who suffer from lactose intolerance experience symptoms that range from uncomfortable to painful when they ingest lactose products. Milk or cheese may cause these individuals abdominal pain or cramps, bloating, nausea, or diarrhea, often less than an hour after eating. Alternatively, for those with milk allergies, dairy products may trigger rashes, hives, swelling, wheezing, and life-threatening anaphylaxis.

Avoiding dairy can also be a voluntary diet choice, as it is part of a vegan lifestyle. Recent research has found that as much as 36 percent of American consumers prefer dairy and meat alternatives. These voluntarily dairy-free consumers added to those who have to avoid it for medical reasons create a large percentage of the population – large enough that you may want to consider making it easier for them to order at your restaurant.

Menu Adjustments

Thanks to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, consumers have a much easier time determining which foods contain dairy, but these laws only apply to packaged foods, so eating out is still a gamble for many people. Implementing these same labeling conventions in your restaurant can make it easier for you to adjust your menu to be a little more accommodating. Food packaging must list under the ingredients if the food contains any of the top eight allergens: eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soy, and, of course, milk. This can help you identify ingredients you are using that contain milk at a glance, allowing you to ascertain which menu items are already dairy-free and which can be altered to fit those needs.

It is important to note that non-dairy does not always mean dairy-free, a distinction that can make a huge difference to highly allergic customers. Thankfully, there are a number of dairy substitute products available that you can keep on hand. Butter, a product commonly forgotten to be dairy, can be substituted with a dairy-free margarine or any one of several vegetable oils. Dairy milk can be exchanged for soy, almond, cashew, or coconut milk. There are several companies making dairy-free cheese, such as Daiya, Tofutti, and Go Veggie. You can also offer menu adjustments that remove the dairy altogether instead of replacing it. For example, chicken strips that normally are battered with a mix that includes buttermilk can be prepared without the batter and grilled or baked instead of deep-fried. Including these options on your menu will make dairy-free customers feel welcome.

Training and Procedures

For a mildly lactose intolerant customer, asking you to hold the cheese on a burger might be enough to avoid a reaction, but a more highly allergic person needs food to be handled with more care. Every restaurant should have strict allergen procedures in place and ensure that every employee is trained in these protocols. In some states, the menu must carry a notice on the menu to tell the server about any food allergies anyone in the party has. The server should make a note of any allergies or intolerances the customer brings up and be sure to mention those to the chef. In many restaurants, severe allergies prompt a visit to the table from the chef, so he or she can discuss the precautions needed with the customer. You may wish to consider the following to make eating at your restaurant easier for those with lactose intolerance or dairy allergies.

  • •Keep a notebook like the one espoused by celebrity chef and food allergy advocate Ming Tsai that lists all the ingredients in every dish, making it simple to see at a glance if the recipe contains dairy or other allergens.
  • •Set up your ticket system to print orders with food allergy accommodations in red ink, so your kitchen staff knows to pay special attention to them.
  • •Invest in purple food allergy products to help your kitchen staff prevent cross-contamination.
  • •Use color-coded stickers or differently shaped plates to identify those going to lactose intolerant or dairy-allergic customers so your servers can ensure they are handled carefully and delivered to the correct customer.
  • •Post a food allergy reference poster in your kitchen.
  • •Consider enrolling your staff in food allergen training from AllerTrain or ServSafe.
  • •In states where it is legal to do so, consider keeping EpiPens stocked in the restaurant in case of an allergic reaction.

“You will never get a more loyal client than someone that has a food allergy that comes to your establishment and feels welcome.” – Celebrity Chef Ming Tsai

This may look like a lot of work, but the time invested in training and setting up these protocols can pay off quickly, as your restaurant gains a reputation for being food allergy and lactose intolerance friendly. Equipping your restaurant and staff to serve customers with dairy allergies can also protect your business from litigation by preventing tragic mistakes.

“You will never get a more loyal client than someone that has a food allergy that comes to your establishment and feels welcome,” Tsai says. “If you can pull that off, you’ve got this client for life. Not only do you have this client, you have all her or his friends, because a person that makes the restaurant decision besides children when you go out to eat is the person with a food allergy because that person needs to eat where they feel safe.”

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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