Allergen-Free Menus Are Good for Guests and Your Bottom Line

This time of year turns many public places into a symphony of sniffling and sneezing as spring pollen triggers seasonal allergies. For the roughly 15 million Americans with food allergies, though, their condition isn’t limited to a few weeks out of the year, nor are their symptoms as innocuous as runny noses and itchy eyes. For those with food allergies, every trip into a place where food is served must be taken with extreme caution. Here’s how you, as an operator, can do your part to protect guests with food allergies and help your establishment become an allergy-friendly restaurant.

Allergy Awareness

The first step in getting your restaurant ready to take of care of guests with food allergies is understanding the nature of the disease. More than 90 percent of allergic reactions are caused by what have become known as the Big 8: dairy, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and wheat. Reactions to allergens vary wildly from mild discomfort to full anaphylaxis, which can require hospitalization and even be fatal. Sometimes even trace amounts of an allergen can cause a reaction, making it critical that severely allergic individuals avoid any contact at all with the substance.

The Big 8 aren’t the only foods that can cause allergies. Virtually anything, including meat, fruit, and even staples like sugar and salt, can cause allergic reactions in a small percentage of the population, but learning to keep track of the Big 8 can go a long way in protecting your guests. Restaurants and organizations have developed a number of methods to address food allergy concerns, ranging from developing allergen-free menus to adopting strict no substitution policies that leave allergy-sufferers all but banned from their restaurants.

Governments are beginning to step in to address the growing concern caused by food allergies. Massachusetts and Rhode Island have created laws that require certain foodservice establishments to take steps to inform guests and staff of potential allergens that may be present in their products, including posting the information in the kitchen and in public areas. Both states also have voluntary “Food Allergy Friendly” (FAF) databases that list eateries that conform to certain standards.

The hassle of slowing down the kitchen and taking on the risk of being held liable for mistakes made in designated allergen-free dishes has some operators hesitant to commit to offering allergen-free meals, but the payoffs of a thoughtful allergen program can far outweigh the costs. In addition to knowing you help serve members of your community with conditions that can potentially bar them from participating in everyday activities, accommodating guests with food allergies makes business sense, too.

If just one member of a party has a food allergy and doesn’t feel safe dining at your establishment, that can cost you the business of the whole group. Paul Antico, founder of the Allergy Eats website that allows guests to rate how well a particular restaurant handles food-allergy requests, notes that becoming an allergy-friendly restaurant can lead to as much as a 24 percent profit increase. Establishing trust with some of the 15 million Americans who suffer from food allergies is also a good way to build a loyal base of customers who need restaurants to depend on when they dine out.

Training is a Top Priority

Equipping your restaurant to handle food allergens begins with training your staff. Getting your program off the ground is an intimidating step, but you don’t have to figure things out yourself. A number of online and in-person food allergy training programs are offered by professional organizations to teach staff and management how to handle food in ways that protect patrons with allergies.

The popular ServSafe™ program, administered by the National Restaurant Association, offers an online food allergy training course that aims to educate every member of a restaurant’s staff about his or her responsibility in an allergen-control program. The course teaches how to recognize symptoms of allergic reactions, avoid cross-contact between foods, clean equipment and supplies, and implement kitchen practices to minimize the chances of exposing allergic guests to ingredients that can harm them.

Another national program, AllerTrain™, a service of MenuTrinfo, provides many training options, including in-person and webinar training, as well as e-learning courses. AllerTrain teaches staff about the most common food allergies and how to handle food and equipment to protect guests with food allergies. This course also teaches restaurant employees how to accommodate guests with Celiac’s Disease, the condition that causes gluten intolerance.

Putting it Into Practice

If knowing is half the battle, food allergy training is half of the equation in your efforts to establish a reliable allergen-control program in your kitchen. The other half is equipping your kitchen properly so that trained staff can put that knowledge into practice.

Allergen programs generally involve setting aside a certain space in the kitchen specifically for preparing allergen-free dishes. This space must be routinely cleaned and disinfected, with equipment used only there and nowhere else in the kitchen for any other task. Over the past few years, equipment manufacturers have begun manufacturing tools and supplies in color-coded purple to designate them for prepping and holding allergen-free dishes. Stock up on purple versions of your common supplies to outfit the allergen-free part of your kitchen.

Don’t let color-coding stop in the back-of-the-house. Consider using allergy-specific color coding system for plated food. This can range from a particular type of plate being used to serve allergen-free dishes to color-coded toothpicks in items that have been prepared for allergic guests. A system like that gives customers peace of mind knowing that their dishes have been treated with care and also ensures that every staff member who handles food on its way to the customer is aware that it is to be kept allergy free.

Independent operators can take a cue from the most allergy-friendly restaurant chains when it comes to designing a menu that’s friendly to allergy sufferers. Instead of simply being willing to make substitutions in and exclusions from your main dishes, consider intentionally designing menu items without certain allergens and designate them as such on your menu. Mark each allergen-free dish clearly on your printed materials and consider printing separate allergy-free menus that list only your allergen-free dishes. Doing so will signal to guests with allergies that you value their business, that you want them to have choices when they dine in your restaurant, and that they’re not being an inconvenience by requiring special consideration.

Eliminating certain members of the Big 8 from key menu items may be easier than others. The presence of shellfish will likely be limited to your seafood menu. Others, like wheat, soy, and dairy, may be a little harder to eliminate, especially in dishes with complex sauces and garnishes. This is where it pays to communicate with your food supplier. Don’t just assume that a product is free of a certain allergen, as flavor additives may contain unexpected ingredients. Verify each and every ingredient in every product you serve and consider keeping a compendium that highlights all potential allergens in each dish.

Keep Guests in the Loop

Communication through the entire service process is critical in an effective allergen control program. Guests should be able to feel confident their needs will be met, and it is the responsibility of everyone in the restaurant to ensure that confidence is built and maintained. Consider beginning every table’s experience at your restaurant by asking if anyone in the party has food allergies. This step opens up a clear line of communication and removes the potential apprehension allergic guests may have of speaking up.

Train your staff to be able to confidently discuss food allergies with your guests. Make sure they understand which allergen-free menu items are available and equip them to answer questions about potential substitutions. Make it so servers never need to guess whether a certain item poses a threat. That’s where keeping a manual of every dish you serve and list of all potential allergens will come in handy. Make sure servers understand the severity of food allergies so they know what’s at stake when they take on the responsibility of serving a guest with allergies.

Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.

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