With a more educated consumer demanding customization and transparency from restaurants, the limited-service industry is already on the path toward more effectively addressing the small-yet-loyal food allergy community.

The extra steps that prevent cross-contamination—from switching gloves to assembling allergen-friendly meals on separate surfaces—require additional training and time in meal assembly but can go a long way in fomenting lifelong trust among customers.

Consumers with food allergies represent just 5 percent of the U.S. population (not including gluten-sensitive diners), but they make up not just some of the most vocal, but also the most loyal, diners, says Paul Antico, founder of the AllergyEats restaurant guide. Antico himself has three children with food allergies. An AllergyEats survey of several hundred consumers found that those with food allergies visit their favorite restaurant 58 percent of the time, compared to 42 percent for the general population.

“Once folks with food allergies know a place is safe, they come back again and again because it makes life easier,” he says. “Brands also gain their family and friends as customers because, when they go out to eat, they always get the veto vote.”

Food allergies are the reality among younger consumers more than any other generation, having increased 50 percent among children between 1997 and 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most legacy quick serves don’t have a great track record on allergies, averaging about three out of five on AllergyEats.com, based on such factors as staff training, availability of alternatives, and safe handling. Antico chalks this up in part to high turnover, but more notably to lack of commitment, since learning common food allergens, providing complete ingredient lists, and offering to change gloves don’t require significant investment.

“It really comes down to commitment. Do restaurants want to do it?” Antico says. “The whole quick-serve model is just that: quick service, getting people in and out, and food allergy customers slow the process down. But the business reality is that chains that commit can make good money doing this.”

What is a food allergy?

When a person has an allergy, his or her immune system identifies normally harmless substances like pollen or strawberries as a threat, triggering an allergic reaction upon contact. Allergic reactions can differ among people and circumstances, but food is one of the most common allergens that can cause anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic reaction that can be fatal if not treated properly. Food intolerance, on the other hand, refers to difficulty digesting certain foods and does not trigger the immune system.

There are more than 250 potential food allergens, though most people are allergic to one of the so-called Big Eight: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy.

Not to be confused with a wheat allergy, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where ingestion of even trace amounts of gluten—a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye—can cause cumulative damage to the small intestine.

Customization is the new normal

Recent years have seen the emergence of increasingly nuanced lifestyle-fueled special diets—from paleo to flextarian—leading the industry to embrace a more open operating model.

Washington, D.C.–based Southeast Asian chain ShopHouse takes after sibling brand Chipotle in its build-your-own-meal setup. Because dairy and gluten aren’t naturally found in the Bangkok-style rice and curry shops, the menu is naturally dairy-free and mostly gluten-free, aside from the crispy spring rolls. But the chain also heavily emphasizes food safety in training—something made easier by the fact that the same people prep, cook, and serve the food.

“We place a very big focus on hand-washing, glove-changing when moving from task to task, and the importance of avoiding cross-contamination,” says brand director Tim Wildin. Since the Thai-spicy red curry and mild peanut sauces “look fairly similar to the untrained eye,” and since peanuts are a top allergen, ShopHouse labels them very clearly and places the peanut sauce closest to the server on the line to avoid any dripping onto the other foods as it’s ladled into the bowl.

Santa Monica, California–based fast casual Veggie Grill draws in not only vegans and vegetarians with its plant-based menu, but also a lot of paleo and food-allergic consumers. With such a large swath of customers with free-from diets, Veggie Grill offers gluten-friendly (with the chance there’s trace gluten present), soy-, onion-, and garlic-free menus.

“Veggie Grill naturally attracts folks on all kinds of diets who are very mindful about what they eat and ask very pointed, educated questions,” says Steve Heeley, CEO of the 28-location chain. “They know they can count on us to be able to help them make a good choice, or let them know if we can’t meet their needs.”

The brand trains cashiers to engage customers immediately about whether they’ve been in before and what their preferences and needs are “to get them talking so if there are things they want to avoid, we can address that up front,” he says. Nutritional fact sheets are posted throughout the store and online, and if a customer asks a question about certain ingredients or preparations that a cashier can’t answer, guest advocates are on hand at the corporate office to field questions.

To avoid using latex gloves (latex is also an allergen), Veggie Grill vigorously monitors hand washing. Dedicated handling is strictly enforced in the kitchen, down to using a designated gluten-free fryer. Orders are always repeated back between the front and back of house, with emphasis on any modifiers. And the brand enforces visual verification on all carryout and delivery orders, taking items out of the bag to ensure it’s correct before it goes out.

“Veggie Grill has the most customization of any brand I’ve worked with,” Heeley says. “We encourage that, but we also have to be super cognizant that we’re getting it right.”

Pizza goes gluten-friendly (and dairy-free)

Next-generation pizza brands have similarly adopted customized meal assembly, which means food allergies add minimal time to orders at spots like Pieology Pizzeria.

“From our point of view, speed is super important, and we’re in that space where that’s part of the expectation and promise,” says vice president of marketing Debbie Porter. “But the way our operating model works, it’s all custom to the consumer’s specifications anyway. Plus, we don’t really have a back of house, so we’re held accountable.”

Employees of the 125-location chain undergo extensive in-house and county- and state-regulated training on food allergies as part of overall food safety training that emphasizes avoiding cross-contamination. Pieology sources gluten-, soy-, and dairy-free dough from gluten-free Venice Bakery in El Segundo, California. The dough arrives packaged and is kept separate during assembly and baking. When customers mention they have a gluten, soy, or dairy sensitivity, staff members offer to change gloves and then steer those consumers toward allergen-free toppings down the line (the brand also offers dairy-free cheese). Because there’s flour on the premises, the brand is careful to call itself “gluten-friendly” on all communication touchpoints.

Pasadena, California–based Blaze Pizza opted to develop its own gluten-free dough before opening in 2011.

“Gluten-free pizza was important to us as a brand before we opened, but it’s a big commitment,” says executive chef Brad Kent. “We wanted to give the gluten-free consumer the same experience as a person not choosing that option.”

A third-party manufacturer measures and mixes the rice flour-based dry ingredients and delivers it to the restaurants. Each morning before the day’s production begins, the gluten-free mix is kneaded with water, yeast, and olive oil in the clean mixers, and the dough is put into proofing trays that look different from standard trays to ferment overnight. “We want to give gluten-free diners the same experience of full fermentation,” Kent says. “While there isn’t gluten development in the dough, overnight fermentation does develop the flavor.”

The dough is portioned out on scales protected with plastic wrap, and stored in a dedicated cooler. When an order is placed, the dough is pressed on a dedicated mat; topped with separate, uncontaminated sauce; and baked on the same special mat before getting sliced with a specially marked pizza cutter.

“Gluten-free orders slow us down a little, but we’re not a slower restaurant because of it,” Kent says, adding that the brand is focused on its 180-second, “fast-fired” reputation. “And we’re able to bring in guests we normally wouldn’t have and their families.”

Something for everyone

Knowing how difficult it is to prevent cross-contamination with peanuts, Veggie Grill opted to exclude them altogether, using only tree nuts for butters, spreads, and salad accents. Because the brand already seeks out manufacturing partners with short, clean, and vegan ingredient decks, it has spent the past few years branching out to find options that can accommodate more customers.

“In the past, a lot of the meat alternatives have been very much soy based,” Heeley says. “We really started to branch out and find other types of products not made from soy, whether it’s non-dairy cheese made from cashews or almonds or testing meat alternatives that use pea protein. It helps us address those certain populations who can’t have those products for whatever reason.”

Kent notes that giving the necessary time and attention to food allergies “elevates fast casual to a level of service that’s closer to fine dining,” where accommodating special diets is essentially inherent.

For AllergyEats’ Antico, watching his dairy-allergic son have his first-ever (dairy-free) pizza created a level of customer satisfaction that’s hard to top. “That kind of guest satisfaction is a competitive advantage for the brands willing to make the commitment,” he says. “It was an awesome experience.”

Consumer Trends, Customer Experience, Fast Casual, Food Safety, Health & Wellness, Menu Innovations, Pizza, Story, Blaze Pizza, Pieology Pizzeria, ShopHouse, Veggie Grill