Web Exclusive | May 2011 | By Daniel P. Smith

Nothing to Sneeze At

Allergy awareness is growing among the public—and in the quick-serve industry.

With Food Allergy Awareness Week, May 8–14, upon the foodservice world, quick-serve operators and others are continuing to ramp up their efforts in helping customers with allergy afflictions know exactly what is in their food.

Chris Weiss, vice president of advocacy and government relations for the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), says that as part of Awareness Week, allergen advocates will host programs in schools, restaurants, and other community establishments to heighten allergen understanding. In addition, more than half of the nation’s governors have issued formal proclamations recognizing the food-allergy effort.

While most once thought of the Big 8 as a college athletics conference hosting Jayhawks, Cornhuskers, and Cyclones, a mention of the Big 8 today is more likely to trigger a conversation about wheat, soy, egg, and peanut, just four of the eight food allergens that account for approximately 90 percent of all food allergies in the U.S.

Due in large part to a surge in food allergies, highly publicized allergy cases, and exhaustive education efforts by groups such as FAAN, food allergies have escaped the back page and have been firmly planted in the nation’s consciousness.

Sloane Miller is one expert who knows the challenges of food allergies all too well.

The New York City native was raised in restaurants, a potentially frustrating reality for a child with tree-nut and salmon allergies. Yet Miller, now a nationally recognized food allergy consultant and advocate, learned at an early age to both understand her diagnosis and communicate her needs to restaurant staff.

“I want the same things every other customer wants—good food at a good price. I just have some extra special requests,” Miller says.

With the number of food-allergy diagnoses rising—meaning more customers with food allergies walking into restaurants—operators across the country are increasingly taking notice of an issue that can hospitalize and even kill patrons.

“Restaurants committed to hospitality understand that allergies are an extension of food safety,” Miller says. “From multiunits to the ma-and-pa restaurants, there’s a growing awareness that signals a real positive [outlook].”

Culver’s and Subway are just two of the well-established names that have taken active steps to be allergen-friendly.

For the last decade, Wisconsin-based Culver’s has provided an in-store brochure—updated twice each year—highlighting the allergens in specific menu items. The company also provides an allergen grid on its website and developed an iPhone app that shares allergen info.

“We feel it’s important for our guests to have the most complete information possible at their disposal. Our guests want to know and need to know,” Culver’s director of research and menu development Jim Doak says.

Culver’s also integrated allergen attentiveness into its POS system. After customers communicate their allergies to a cashier, he hits an alert key on the POS system that appears on the kitchen monitor. Kitchen staff then pause work, approach the cashier to identify the particular allergens, and take the necessary steps to alter the product’s creation and control cross contamination.

“We need to be transparent, so our customers can make the right choice. If we do that, we'll earn their trust.”

On its website, sandwich giant Subway provides a comprehensive, two-page allergy chart listing the Big 8 allergens and other sensitive ingredients found in its menu items. In addition, Subway provides a separate ingredient listing on its website for those with allergies outside of the Big 8.

“It’s a simple way for customers to look at the information and see what items they can eat at our restaurants,” says Subway corporate dietician Lanette Kovachi, adding that the online presence allows the brand to update information regularly.

“When it comes to food allergies, you don’t want to take the risk of being outdated.”

In Subway restaurants, every case of food that enters the store features a printed ingredient list and allergen info. Further, the chain’s production line makes it easy for crewmembers to assemble customer’s special orders, including those that are sensitive to certain allergies.

Weiss believes any restaurant looking to be allergen responsive must first adopt a serious, considerate approach. Second, he encourages restaurant managers to learn the basics. On its website, FAAN hosts a 20-minute video providing a food-allergy overview and tips, as well as a manual titled “Welcoming Guests with Food Allergies.” Both resources are free.

As the Internet is filled with online groups discussing allergens, including ratings and reviews of allergen-friendly restaurants from a generally vocal and loyal group, smart restaurants have made an effort to be responsive and attentive to specific needs.

“We are a restaurant’s best potential customer,” Miller says of the allergen afflicted. “I go to chains from city to city because I know they handle my requests well and I’m often bringing others with me.”

Moving forward, emerging technologies such as in-store kiosks and smartphone apps are expected to make allergy information more accessible to consumers. Restaurants, meanwhile, are likely to extrapolate allergen information further, both in response to consumer demand and as a sense of responsibility to consumers.

“As an industry, I think we need to be transparent, so our customers can make the right choice,” Culver’s Doak says. “If we do that, we’ll earn their trust.”

Comments

I started my place with a dual kitchen. I self taught my self how to prevent cross contamination. To me it was common sense not to use the same equipment. I went out and purchased dedicated GF equipment. Then I took it one step further by becoming certified through the NFCA to give my store validity. My mother who is celiac talked me into doing GF pizza three years ago. I was the second only place in Michigan to offer GF. You have no idea how it changed the lives of so many families that had no options for dinning out. People were so appreciative and everybody knows that I have a dual kitchen. Many restaurants dont have the funding to have two kitchens under one roof especially when your customer base is such a small percentage. I took a gamble and it has paid off for me now three years later Im opening a GF deli with two celiac employees baking my own breads making fresh soups,sandwiches,pies,cup cakes,waffle cones,and so on. Because I make my pizza dough from scratch I can also diversify and accommodate families with multiple food allergies. Gluten free pizza has been so popular in the last year and I know of some the restaurants are not properly training there staff. I have thirteen employees only two of them help me with GF but all them know what GF is and how important it is to stay away from my GF work area. ITs going to take some time to make people understand about celiac and food allergies. What I have seen over the last few years its getting a little better.

I started my place with a dual kitchen. I self taught my self how to prevent cross contamination. To me it was common sense not to use the same equipment. I went out and purchased dedicated GF equipment. Then I took it one step further by becoming certified through the NFCA to give my store validity. My mother who is celiac talked me into doing GF pizza three years ago. I was the second only place in Michigan to offer GF. You have no idea how it changed the lives of so many families that had no options for dinning out. People were so appreciative and everybody knows that I have a dual kitchen. Many restaurants dont have the funding to have two kitchens under one roof especially when your customer base is such a small percentage. I took a gamble and it has paid off for me now three years later Im opening a GF deli with two celiac employees baking my own breads making fresh soups,sandwiches,pies,cup cakes,waffle cones,and so on. Because I make my pizza dough from scratch I can also diversify and accommodate families with multiple food allergies. Gluten free pizza has been so popular in the last year and I know of some the restaurants are not properly training there staff. I have thirteen employees only two of them help me with GF but all them know what GF is and how important it is to stay away from my GF work area. ITs going to take some time to make people understand about celiac and food allergies. What I have seen over the last few years its getting a little better.

There is new, exciting solutions for restaurants to help ease the perceived "pain" of going Allergy or Gluten Friendly. I consult with commercial kitchens and restaurants across the US to provide solutions from customized software management programs including apps that allow staff or guests to input their specific dietary restrictions and get a customized menu of what they CAN eat at each restaurant. I work with front of house and back of house to train and certify kitchens on safe practices as well as creating full flavored menu item alternatives. I am a food allergic, foodie, who grew up in this business. I understand the challenges on both sides from the consumer to the restaurateur. I am here to help.

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