How Food Allergens are Impacting Restaurant Dining

What would you say if we told you that there were an extra 32 million people that could be ordering from your restaurant that aren’t? What if we told you that just a few simple menu tweaks would allow for you to reach them? Would you care? Would you make the effort? The good news is, there really are 32 million people who would love to dine at your restaurant. The bad news is, they can’t. These 32 million people are those in the United States that have a food allergies. In today’s restaurant environment, those afflicted with food allergies have found it nearly impossible to dine out safely with their families due to the lack of resources as well as understanding from the dining community. It is our hope to begin to turn the tide and connect you with this untapped market to create not only new revenue opportunities, but safer dining practices within restaurants everywhere.

Dining Out with Food Allergies

In order to dine out safely, this particular group of patrons have to research restaurant menus ahead of time to make sure that the restaurant can accommodate their needs. According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), those with food allergies should do the following: 

Understanding Food Allergies

We’re sure that if you’ve been in foodservice for any length of time, you’ve likely had diners inquire about the allergy-friendliness of your menu. In order to accommodate those with food allergies, it’s important to know what they are and how they effect the body. Did you know that over 90% of allergic reactions are food-allergy-related? While we’re all familiar with outdoor allergies and the discomfort around itchy eyes and noses as the seasons change, food allergies tend to be a bit more allusive. Food allergies are similar in the way that they cause what’s caused a “histamine response” upon consumption. This IgE (Immunoglobin E) immune response is given off when the body detects a threat. In the case of food allergens, this response results in a swelling of the respiratory tissue.

Can’t they just take the cheese off? 

Actually, they can’t. When someone has a food allergy, the allergen can’t have contact with the food that they’re about to consume. This falls under the umbrella of “cross-contamination”.

“Cross contamination occurs when one object becomes contaminated by either direct or indirect contact with another object which is already contaminated.”

In the case of food allergens, if a person who has a food allergy to dairy and removes the cheese from their pizza, the allergen is still present on the sauce and crust of the pizza (even though it can’t be seen). The person consuming this seemingly-cheeseless-pizza is at nearly the same risk for allergic reaction as they would have been if they had left it on. An allergen can not be removed from a food source, it must be avoided.

Observing Best Practices

Serving this particular audience comes with a few hurdles to overcome but nothing over and above what could be found in your servsafe manual. The same cross-contamination rules that servsafe requires each foodservice business to observe to safeguard diners from foodborne illness are the same rules that can be followed to avoid cross-contamination by food-allergens. Let’s take a look at the example below:

In the example above regarding safe practices for preventing foodborne illnesses, you can begin to see how the same concepts apply to preventing allergic reactions in patrons with food allergies. Because cross-contamination involves the touching of an allergen to another food or object, the storage, preparation and serving of top-8 allergen containing foods has to be done with care and consideration. If we were to apply the safe practices above to allergens it would look like this:

  1. Make sure workstations, cutting boards, equipment and utensils are cleaned and sanitized. (No changes there!)
  2. Do NOT allow allergen-free foods (that are ready-to-eat) to come in contact with a dining patron’s allergen.
  3. Prepare allergens at a different time (and away from) read-to-eat/non-allergen containing foods.
  4. Clean and sanitize work surfaces, utensils and equipment between each product.
  5. Cross-contamination can be caused by other ready-to-eat ingredients that have come in contact with an allergen. When storing allergens, make sure they are contained separately and safely away from your other non-allergen-containing ingredients.

Once you’ve begun to grasp the basics of safe practices for serving your patrons with food allergies, you can begin to safely cater to this food-cautious audience. Trailblazers in the restaurant industry, such as Cooper’s Hawk, have begun to embrace this growing population with the rollout of their all gluten-free menu. However, catering to your food allergy audiences doesn’t have to be singular in focus — meaning you don’t have to only choose one of the food allergens and transform your menu around it. Certain lifestyles, such as Vegan, account for a large majority of food allergies. A diner who is vegan will not be consuming at least half of the top 8 allergens including: milk, eggs, shellfish or fish. So, as restaurants have begun to experiment with adding plant-based options to reach their vegan audiences, they’ve naturally become more allergy-friendly as well. For this reason, it’s no wonder that restaurants who have debuted plant-based burgers have seen a 36% increase in same-store revenue. 

Understanding food allergies and expanding your knowledge on growing audience demographics doesn’t only help your business thrive, but allows others to enjoy dining out with their families.

Reaching these new audiences is not just advantageous for revenue purposes, but has now become a conscious effort throughout the restaurant and CPG industries to serve more than just your traditional diner. Want to learn more?

If you’re interested in learning more about how to expand your reach to new demographics, subscribe to our blog and follow us on Instagram @my_smartmenu

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