Let’s face it: Food allergies are going nowhere. In fact, they’re becoming more and more prevalent and are increasingly popping up on restaurants’ radar.
However, even with the widening spotlight turned on food allergies, many restaurants still have miles to go before becoming allergy friendly. But now is the time, says Paul Antico, founder and CEO of AllergyEats, a website and mobile app that helps the food allergy community make more informed decisions about where to dine.
“If I’m running a restaurant, I have to recognize it now or recognize it later,” he says. “One way or another, this is a problem that’s going to have to be dealt with, and the smarter restaurateurs, in my opinion, recognize it now and take advantage of the fact that [the food allergy community] loves restaurants that are willing to cater to them.”
Antico acknowledges, however, that many restaurants fear serving food-allergic guests, whether it’s because they believe it’s expensive or too challenging. That’s why Antico created the “Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs: What Every Restaurant Should Know About Food Allergies to Ensure Safety & Maximize Customer Engagement, Loyalty, and Revenue.”
The conference, which takes place on October 16 from 8 a.m.–2:30 p.m. in Boston, will offer restaurant chefs, owners, and managers the chance to learn about food allergies straight from executives, chefs, and allergists.
“I thought, ‘I’m always talking to restaurants about being allergy friendly,’” Antico says about the inspiration for the inaugural conference. “‘I’m hearing about the ones that are and the ones that aren’t. And more importantly, I’ve built up this great list of fantastic people in the community. Why don’t we start educating some of these restaurants who want to know more?’”
The conference will include speakers from across the industry, such as Peter Christie, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association; Rich Vellante, executive chef of Legal Sea Foods; and Betsy Craig, CEO and founder of Kitchens with Confidence, a service company that assists the hospitality industry with serving food-allergic diners.
Session topics will include “Food Allergy Basics,” which spotlights fundamentals, statistics, and the realities of accommodating food-allergic and intolerant guests; “Restaurants That Get it Right,” presentations from restaurateurs who excel at accommodating food-allergic guests; “Basic Training,” which focuses on the process of becoming more allergy friendly; and “The Financials Around Food Allergies,” a session that explores the economics of accommodating food-allergic diners, including increased loyalty and profit opportunities.
Though restaurants are often hesitant to cater toward the food-allergic crowd because of feard expenses, Antico says becoming allergy friendly can actually bring in more money for restaurants that adopt the practice.
“If this community of [food-allergic] Americans and their parties start migrating more and more to those restaurants that take food allergies seriously, it’s going to make a big difference in the long-term business economics of every restaurant,” he says. “Restaurants are in business to make money, and that’s great. And if they can make money by accommodating our community … it’s a great opportunity for restaurants.”
In fact, Antico says that restaurants who refuse to become allergy friendly are actually risking losing out on customers—and their lifelong loyalty.
He also says the practice can be a morale booster for employees, who take pride in knowing they serve allergy-friendly food and make dining out easier for customers who have allergies.
And incorporating allergy-friendly practices doesn’t have to be hard. Antico says the No. 1 thing quick serves must do when becoming allergy friendly is to train employees to understand what food allergies are. “They should understand what ingredients are in your products and, most importantly, the people in the back cooking products should understand cross-contamination,” he adds.
Though allergy training can be difficult due to high turnover rates in the quick-serve restaurant industry, having at least one manager on staff who can answer customers’ allergy-related questions is vital.
“It does take a little bit extra effort. It does take extra attention,” he says. “But it’s not expensive, it’s not a grueling training process. It’s really about just basic understanding of cross-contact and what’s in your food.”
Antico says he not only hopes conference attendees leave with a deeper understanding of food allergies, but that they’re enthusiastic about becoming allergy friendly, too.
“I want them to walk away saying, ‘OK, not only do I realize that I can do this—that this isn’t rocket science, I just need a commitment to it—but I’m really excited about this,’” he says. “‘This is a community that’s going to be here whether I want it or not, but this is a community that’s going to be great for my business.’”
By Mary Avant