How to Accommodate Dietary Restrictions

July 6, 2015 - 12 minutes read

A few weeks ago we wrote a blog post about the benefits of offering diners more options in terms of allergen-free menu items. With food allergies on the rise, dietary restrictions ever-present, and 1 out of 100 people diagnosed with Celiac Disease, it is imperative that restaurants adapt to the changing tastes of their diners. Now that you know you there are a huge economic incentive to offering allergen-free menu items, we want you to be as educated as possible about serving these diners. When dining out as a group, the restaurant that is chosen is the one that can accommodate dietary restrictions. This guest is the veto-vote, so if your restaurant can’t accommodate you just lost some valuable business. Your establishment can increase profits by over 20% if you learn how to safely and comfortably accommodate dietary restrictions.

Restaurants that have a gluten-free menu, but do not understand the risks of cross contamination in their kitchens could be held liable for any number of lawsuits. This is why most restaurants that offer gluten-free menus put a disclaimer at the bottom that usually says something like this:

accommodate dietary restrictions accommodate dietary restrictions accommodate dietary restrictions accommodate dietary restrictions

So is this food actually gluten-free? The answer is most likely no. As someone with Celiac Disease, the vast majority of restaurants I frequent are dedicated gluten-free businesses. But the majority of people with Celiac aren’t like me. Many visit ‘normal’ restaurants with gluten-free menus and pray their meals are safe to eat. With Celiac Disease or a severe allergy to accommodate, here are some tips to creating a safe environment for all your guests.

Get Certified.

– This is the gold standard for any restaurant that wants to be sure it is doing everything right. There are numerous certification programs with a range of prices, but before purchasing a certification program make sure they are accredited by at least one of the major food allergen associations.

– Programs like ServSafe and MenuTrinfo have valuable information that help restaurants and operations of all sizes get educated and elevate their food allergen protocols.

Purchase Your Food.

– Accommodating restaurants work with vendors that list all ingredients in their products. If you can’t tell a guest what ingredients are in a sauce because it is pre-made and the ingredients aren’t listed, you can’t sell or serve that product. In that vein, use allergy-friendly products.

– Stock your kitchen with basic substitutions will make a huge difference in your ability to satisfy guests who want to feel as normal as possible when dining out. Stock gluten-free breads, gluten-free and egg-free pastas, gluten-free soy sauce, dairy-free milks, nut-free oils, etc. This will make substitutions a breeze and allow you more choices when accommodating a diner.

– Another good tip is to stock up on prepackaged desserts that are free of the Big 8 Allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean fish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy). This allows even your allergen-free diner to have at least one dessert option and give you a chance to up-sell.

Labeling & Kitchen.

– Determine which menu items are free of food allergens and label them accordingly. Use symbols like the ones below to denote menu items that are free of these ingredients.

accommodate dietary restrictions

– Visually demonstrate allergen-free meals to your guests. Some restaurants use different colored or different shaped plates (e.g., square for gluten-free instead of round). Others use frill picks to visually convey special meals. Whichever system you choose, make sure your entire staff is trained to know what everything means to ensure no mix-ups occur.

– Prepare allergen-free meals in a separate area of the kitchen using dedicated utensils and kitchen supplies.

– Use dedicated equipment—including dedicated fryers—to eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination. An example of this would be using the same strainer for regular pasta as for gluten-free pasta. Once the gluten-free pasta comes into contact with the contaminated strainer, it is no longer gluten-free. Have a strainer dedicated to allergen-free food preparation, in addition to any utensils and equipment used during this process.

– If you are unable to dedicate a space in your kitchen to the preparation of allergen-free meals, you are unable to serve truly allergen-free food.

– Take advantage of your POS system. Create a key for alerting the kitchen of an allergy or dietary restriction. In your procedures you can define exactly what happens when a server pushes this button. For instance, once pressed, the manager becomes involved in making sure the guest is correctly accommodated.

– Allow guests to customize their meals. The majority of people with dietary restrictions know what they can and can’t eat. They may need some help from wait staff to decipher your menu, but help them out by allowing substitutions and providing transparent allergen information. If you allow guests to make informed decisions, it will be a lot easier to determine what is safe to eat and what to skip.

Communication.

This is a big one, so I’m breaking it down into Internal Communication and External Communication. The main idea for communication is to have a plan in place and make sure all employees follow it strictly.

Internal Communication.

– Set the tone. As the owner, it is your responsibility to emphasize the importance of allergy accommodation to the staff. If you don’t make a big deal out of accommodating diners’ dietary restrictions, your staff won’t either.

– Create a manual or procedure guide for all employees to read and become familiar with. Include information on food allergies, Celiac Disease, and other dietary restrictions.

– Train all employees on this process and train staff how to handle food preparation and serving. Incorporate your employees into your process, and they will feel more confident in what they’re doing.

– Be proactive. When taking reservations, instruct your hostess to ask if any of the guests have dietary restrictions. Make a note of this in the reservation. Instruct servers to ask this same question upon seating guests. This is one of the easiest things to do that will instantly show diners you care about accommodating their needs.

– Once your server is notified of a guest’s allergies, that information needs to reach the manager, chef and kitchen staff.

– Ensure clear communication between guests and staff, sending the manager and/or chef to speak with the guest directly about their specific restrictions. This not only gives guests some peace of mind, but also ensures less human-error on the part of servers.

– Another option is to require managers to serve allergen-free meals separately, as an added safety precaution.

– Managers should act as a knowledge center on behalf of your restaurant and creates an open, honest dialogue with customers. A trained manager should be present during every shift. Training other front-of-house and back-of-house employees is also recommended.

– Make it part of your policy to have a manager personally check in with guests during their meal to ensure guests are comfortable and satisfied.

– If employees are asked a menu or food preparation question and they can’t answer, they should immediately reach out to a manager who can. If your restaurant is unable to confidently answer any guest question regarding food ingredients, handling and safety, communicate this explicitly to the guest.

External Communication.

– Market your restaurant to allergen-free diners, in addition to everyone else. This community is large, loyal and outspoken. When your restaurant works hard to accommodate these guests, you better believe they will become loyal customers and advocates for your restaurant.

– Make your menu and ingredient lists available to guests online and in your restaurant. They know their restrictions better than you do, and thus will be able to make educated decisions before entering your restaurant. This will lessen confusion and allow both guests and employees to save time and energy.

One example of a chain doing it right is Red Robin

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“The Red Robin restaurant chain proactively offers information about the top allergens in all of their U.S and Canadian restaurants. All Red Robin locations are peanut-free, and they can create meals without gluten or other food allergens. As part of their standard protocol, the kitchen staff utilizes allergen kits—separate knives, utensils, gloves, etc.—to prepare food-allergic guests’ orders and uses purple frill picks to visually identify allergy-friendly meals, as purple is universally associated with food allergy awareness. Red Robin is also committed to continuous, comprehensive food allergy staff training, in person and through reminder documents, onsite posters, etc. In addition, Red Robin has embraced technology as part of their food allergy protocols, offering interactive allergen menus where guests can indicate their allergens and get a customized menu of items that are appropriate for them.”

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that not only is accommodating dietary restrictions good for business, but it is good for the community as a whole.

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