Web Exclusive | July 2013 | By Marlee Murphy

Allergic Reaction

Some worry that the healthy eating movement hasn’t done enough to promote allergy-friendly menus.

Some operators have been slow to incorporate allergy-friendly menu options.
Though some operators have made allergy-friendly options a priority, others in the industry have been slow to change their menus. image used with permission.

Cutting calories, lowering fat content, and providing healthy, fresh ingredients have become increasingly commonplace in the limited-service industry over the past few years. But while U.S. quick serves have embraced the healthy lifestyle movement, some wonder if operators are still overlooking the need to offer allergy-friendly menu options.

Paul Antico, CEO of allergy-friendly restaurant database AllergyEats, says he had hoped new labeling laws and the growing desire for healthier options would force restaurants to look more closely at their ingredients and take allergies into consideration in new menu items. But he doesn’t think operators have done enough.

“Unfortunately, what I think we've seen more than anything is almost a crowding out,” Antico says. “What restaurants are saying is, ‘Look, we can only deal with one thing at a time. This year, we have to focus on the healthy eating, it's a hot trend, and we're being legislated on that. That's what we're focusing on now, and food allergies will just have to wait.’”

He says around four percent of U.S. residents have a food allergy and another one percent have Celiac disease, which means they are unable to process gluten. Some operators may consider these figures too insignificant to invest resources into allergy-friendly menu options, Antico says, or believe that creating such a menu is too time consuming and costly, with the benefits not outweighing the costs.

But he says providing an allergy-friendly menu can increase sales significantly. Each allergy-affected individual goes out to eat with an average of three other people, Antico says, which means that 5 percent of the population can translate into 15 to 20 percent of potential business won or lost.

“About 40 percent are more loyal to their favorite restaurant. The word of mouth and the sense of community between those with food allergies are very high,” Antico says. “It's critically important for them to share their thoughts, and they're extremely loyal. Once people with food allergies find a restaurant that can cater to them well, it relieves them. They go back fairly often.”

“What restaurants are saying is, ‘Look, we can only deal with one thing at a time. This year, we have to focus on the healthy eating. That's what we're focusing on now, and food allergies will just have to wait.’”

Soon, it may not just be economic incentives that encourage brands to offer allergy-friendly and gluten-free menu options. More consumers are demanding such items, going so far as legal action to satisfy their demands. Lesley University in Massachusetts, for example, lost a settlement to students with gluten sensitivities after requiring they buy a meal plan but not offering gluten-free options.

“I think people are asking questions now, instead of just accepting what restaurants are serving,” says Chuck Marble, CEO of Elevation Brands, a premium food provider. “Like we saw in the Lesley University lawsuit, they're demanding to have healthier alternatives as they choose to go out to eat at restaurants and other institutions.”

Of course, quick serves are not likely to be at the wrong end of a lawsuit for not offering allergy-friendly and gluten-free options. But they might be if allergy-friendly options are not executed properly.

John Lehr, CEO of Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), says education and employee training are crucial in fashioning a restaurant that offers and perfectly executes allergy-friendly menu options.

“A trace amount of an allergen can cause anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction,” Lehr says. “We have heard many stories from families who were told that a restaurant meal was safe when it actually was not safe.”

Antico also stresses the importance of thoroughly training employees and urges employers to develop additional training protocols beyond a simple video. When a person with allergies walks into a restaurant, he says, every employee should be able to inform him of the set procedure instituted to protect the guest from cross contamination.

“The problem is, without the staff being trained to understand the cross contamination, the menu options are worthless,” Antico says. “Anybody can throw a menu together with the right ingredients, but the problem happens in the back of the kitchen where we don't see it.”

Panera Bread is one of a handful of quick-service restaurants that make allergies a priority and communicates its efforts to customers.

“At Panera, we take the matter of allergens seriously in all our bakery-cafés,” says company spokesperson Linn Parish in an e-mail to QSR. “We have signs posted within our bakery-cafés requesting that customers ask for a complete list of ingredients if they suffer from allergens. Additionally, each café has a list of the ingredients contained in each product, which is available for customer review. Nutrition information and a list of ingredients and allergens for each product are also available on the online nutrition calculator on our website.”

While there may be work left to do in the industry to improve allergy-friendly options, the trend toward healthy eating has helped the gluten-free movement gain exposure. Gluten-free takeout orders have grown nearly 60 percent since April 2012, according to digital food ordering service GrubHub. This newfound demand has driven many quick-service restaurants to add suitable options to the menu.

“There is an increased focus on gluten free, because it is so hot right now,” Antico says. “Again, there's a big fad aspect, as well as the medical aspect.”

Antico encourages quick-service operators with the proper funds, infrastructure, and time to commit themselves to an allergy-friendly mindset.

“It's a great niche opportunity for those who are willing to accommodate,” he says. “The biggest barrier to a restaurant, whether it's independent or a chain, is commitment. It's the owners, the CEOs, the managers; if they make a commitment to becoming allergy friendly, it's not rocket science.”


Panera has a nice thick binder that lists the ingredients of their menu items. Common allergens are flagged. The manager went through the binder with me and helped me pick out an allergy friendly meal. Then, she proceeded to make it herself to guarantee that there was no cross contamination.I wish I could say that was true of all restaurants. I had the worst allergic reaction of my life yesterday at Olive Garden. I went through the list of allergies with the waitress, told her how my lunch needed to be prepared, and requested that my food be brought out separately to avoid cross contamination. She brought out my entree with the others. When I reminded her that I needed mine brought out separately, she took it back and brought back the same bowl. I know, because I ended up in the emergency room with anaphylaxis.

We have heard many stories from families who were told that a restaurant meal was safe when it actually was not safe. My favorite is when they stand and argue with you that you couldn't possibly be having an allergic reaction while your tongue begins to swell and you struggle to breathe. I was recently impressed with Panera Bread. I was amazed that 1) their manager stopped what she was doing to have a lengthy discussion at a table with me 2) they had a binder listing every ingredient of every menu item 3) the manager herself prepared the meal and delivered it and then checked back repeatedly 4) their binder also had an allergen alert. Plus, they use organic ingredients, use antibiotic-free chicken, and have food my children like for a tolerable price!

Walt Disney World, Florida restaurants have had ingredient lists for their menus since 1993. I'm not sure how long prior to that time were they paying attention to food allergies but that was our first encounter with their VERY accommodating posture for our then 3yr old. It was truly the 'Happiest Place on Earth" for her and through the years is always the best stress free vacation we have.

My son has multiple food allergies (the top 8.) I would never put his life at risk by ordering food from a restaurant I know is responsible for cooking a lot of food for a lot of people in a short amount of time - cross contamination is going to happen. Regardless of how much training, how many "how to" posters and what types of allergen-free food is provided, it's a busy restaurant and it's going to happen. And moreso, I don't (and would never) expect a restaurant to be responsible for the health and safety of MY child. That's MY responsiblity. When we go out to eat, I pack my son's meal and take it in. My son knows that's how we do it and the staff at every facility has always been very accepting and kind with us doing so. Again, it's not the responsibility of ANY restaurant to accommodate me, it's MY responsiblity to take care of my child. Again, most importantly, if I dared to demand a restaurant take the life of my child in their hands, without each and every person in that kitchen having the full comprehension and knowledge I've had to gain and apply as we navigate food in his life, and it didn't work out? No amount of money, blame and legal activity would ever replace my son or my responsiblity to care for my son. If you or a loved one have allergies, prepare food at home and take it with you. Or, don't eat out. It's that simple. It's life and death, it's not rocket science.

What Panera bread is doing is only required by law. All Restaurants, by law, at least in Washington, must provide nutritional information about there products upon request. The restaurants who don't provide this information are breaking the law.

This is Paul Antico from AllergyEats. Having been quoted throughout the article, I would like to add three points:1) As a clarification, the implication in my comments near the beginning of the article that restaurants are not doing enough is not to suggest that they don't care; rather, that as a whole they're overwhelmed with other issues.2) While the focus of some of the other comments here is on restaurants that have made mistakes, many restaurants DO have the right commitment and put forth a stellar effort! Red Robin, P.F. Chang's, Legal Sea Foods, Not Your Average Joe's, Outback Steakhouse... just to name a few. Individuals with food allergies do not need to live in a world without the important social aspects of dining out with others. Plenty of restaurant know how to get it right! (See for yourself at www.allergyeats.com.)3) "The trend is our friend." More and more restaurants are making the commitment whether through basic training, "deep dive" training, or broad education to learn how to cater to our community safely. The AllergyEats Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs has become a very popular event as restaurant owners, managers, and chefs look to accommodate this large and loyal audience. (If anyone is interested in our conference on November 5, please see www.allergyeats.com/conference...Food allergies, celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and others are not a fad; in fact, they're growing as a percent of the population. Smart restaurateurs get that now and are making the very reasonable investments to pick off business from those who refuse to take action. In 5 years, most restaurants will need to know how to accommodate or see their business disappear. So they can make the investment now - and benefit from the loyal food allergy community - or make the same investment later - and hope to maintain the business they have left.

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