Could Your Rankings on Food Allergy Review Sites Be Hurting Your Business?You might be losing out on customers and revenue if your restaurant isn't food allergy friendly.
You probably track your reviews on sites like Yelp, Google and TripAdvisor carefully. But some diners are using a whole other set of tools to choose a restaurant.
Those tools, including AllergyEats, BiteAppy and Find Me Gluten Free, help people with food allergies, intolerances or sensitivities determine where to eat. Many people with allergies will not visit restaurants that don’t cater to them and aren’t well reviewed.
NCR Silver talked to Paul Antico, founder and CEO of AllergyEats, about why catering to diners with allergies is a good business move and what changes you can implement to serve this clientele.
An influential market segment
Only about 5 percent of Americans suffer from a food allergy, according to the non-profit Food Allergy Research & Education. But far more have food intolerances or sensitivities or have eschewed ingredients such as gluten to lose weight or improve their health.
Though they represent a small portion of people who dine out, those with allergies and sensitivities are influential, loyal and vocal.
“These people are the veto vote in a group,” said Antico, who is the father of five children, three of whom have allergies. “Personally, if the seven of us are going out to eat and you can’t accommodate my son, I’m not going to come to your restaurant.”
Given the fact that 5 percent of people have an allergy and the average dining group includes three people, Antico estimates that 10 to 15 percent of all groups that eat out could include someone with an allergy. Becoming well rated on allergy specific review sites and accommodating these diners can mean more foot traffic and higher revenues.
A loyal customer base
When you accommodate someone with a food allergy, you gain a customer for life, noted Antico.
“While 95 percent of the world is trying to Yelp around and find a new great restaurant, this is a community that goes to the same one or two places they trust,” he said. “There’s tremendous value in that as well.”
Del Posto, one of New York City’s most expensive Italian restaurants, saw the value in catering to gluten-free customers who wanted to eat pasta. Chef Mark Ladner’s gluten-free offerings became so popular, he told the New York Times, that one-third of tables at dinner are enjoying a gluten-free version of the restaurant’s $149 tasting menu or a separate $179 vegan and gluten-free menu.
“If you don’t get into this now, you’re losing out on an opportunity that others are taking advantage of,” Antico said.
Training is key
If you decide to try to attract allergy sufferers, you need to be serious about it, said Antico. Your restaurant won’t attract these diners if your procedures for handling allergies are executed inconsistently and staffers wing it.
Thus, the most important thing you can do is invest in training. In many states, kitchen employees and wait staff do ServSafe training to learn about food allergies, but Antico said these programs really have no teeth when it comes to specifics.
At a minimum, restaurant owners need to train their staffs on what food allergies are, which ones are most common (the “big eight”), and what happens when people are exposed to an allergy. Food allergy trainers can also be hired to come in to train staff and consult.
Most of all, Antico said it’s important to stress that this a priority for the restaurant that needs to be taken very seriously.
“Some staff will be like, ‘yeah right, food allergies’ because people fake food allergies because they don’t like something, which can cause confusion,” he said. “Compassion is a big part of this.”
Put best practices in place
When it comes to writing procedures to make dining safe, Antico said what works for one restaurant won’t work for all. Some restaurants create entire allergen-free menus or label the most common eight allergens on the regular menu. Some require managers to record and deliver orders when someone has a food allergy. Others use color-coded plates or stickers to denote allergen-free plates for waitstaff.
A small percentage of restaurants take their commitment to the highest level by, say, renovating their kitchens to create allergy-free cooking areas. But small changes can have a big impact on ratings, too. At a minimum, Antico recommends restaurants do the following:
- Use separate tools. If you can, invest in separate cooking utensils, cutting boards and other tools you’ll use to make designated allergy-free dishes. If you’re offering gluten-free pasta, have separate pots that are used only for these meals. If your coffee shop offers soy and almond milk, designate specific milk frothing pitchers and storage carafes for these options. The key is to avoid cross-contamination.
- Be upfront about what you offer. If you can’t invest in separate equipment, you’ll want your staff to warn diners of that fact. If you can’t pay for a separate deep fryer just for gluten-free and dairy-free diners, instruct waitstaff to tell them that fries are made in the same fryer with breaded mozzarella sticks. If all meals use the same grill, let diners know so they can weigh the risks in light of the level of their allergy.
- Ask all diners about allergies. Tell your staff to ask diners at the beginning of the meal whether anyone at the table has an allergy, then confirm with the chef that he or she can make a meal without an ingredient. Instruct waiters to write everything down to avoid miscommunication with the kitchen.
- Train staff on ingredients. If you use peanut oil to fry your french fries, your servers need to know.
- Keep a few basic allergy-friendly staples on hand. Focus on items you can freeze or that have a long shelf life. Offering gluten-free hamburger buns to those with Celiac disease could make their day. Other items to consider stocking include gluten-free pastas and cookies or desserts free of dairy, nuts and gluten.
- Instruct kitchen staff to change their gloves or wash their hands whenever they’re preparing a dish for someone with an allergy or sensitivity. All equipment and cooking utensils should, of course, be sanitized.
When you’ve made a commitment to serving diners with allergies, spread the word to reap a return on your investment.
Antico recommends putting your logo and links to any special menus on allergy review sites. Post signage in store that you’re on AllergyEats and other websites. Like Yelp, many of these apps will provide window stickers to promote the fact that you’re allergy friendly.
Most important, incentivize your customers with allergies to rate you if they’ve had a great dining experience. Antico recommends handing diners a business card asking them to rate you on food allergy sites (include the URLs of the ones you’re active on). You can even offer small discounts and perks for those that give you reviews.
Know that when you start catering to people with allergies and using websites like AllergyEats, Antico said you’re also joining a close community.
“This is a group that knows we have to stick together because some people don’t understand and accept allergies,” he said. “Be proud when you can accommodate someone with food allergies.”