Is your restaurant allergen-friendly?

By Adrian Johansen

When you’re operating a restaurant, you have a lot on your plate — both literally and figuratively. You have to assemble and manage your crew. You have to oversee the financials. You have to ensure that your business is being promoted and marketed effectively. Above all, you have to provide your guests with a first-rate dining experience, an experience that will keep them coming back for years to come.

Accomplishing each of these goals is no mean feat, but it’s essential to the success and survival of your restaurant. Today, however, many restaurateurs find themselves tasked with a new challenge — meeting the needs of diners with food allergies.

To be sure, the enormous variety of food sensitivities and food intolerances can make the prospect of transforming your business into an allergen-friendly restaurant seem overwhelming at best and paralyzing at worst. However, the effort to cater to the particular needs of this market can be immensely rewarding — optimizing your brand, driving customer loyalty, and spurring revenue growth.

Here are some strategies you can use today to ensure that your restaurant is truly an allergen-friendly enterprise.

A growing need

There’s no question that the last few years have been tremendously challenging for the restaurant industry. From a devastating global pandemic and protracted lockdowns to ongoing economic volatility and a massive supply chain crisis, restaurant operators around the world have found themselves struggling to stay afloat.

In light of all this, you may feel rather reluctant to make a change in your operations just as your business is endeavouring to enter the post-pandemic recovery period. The reality, though, is that consumers with special dietary needs are a grossly under-served market in the hospitality industry. 

Thus, when you make the commitment to serve them, you’re going to be entering a sector that has significant demand and relatively little competition. This not only means that you will be leveraging a potentially profound source of revenue, but you will also be cultivating a deeply loyal customer base.

Foodservice allergen training

When it comes to food safety and allergen-friendly service, knowledge is power. That said, it’s important to understand that in Canada, there’s no specific legislation concerning risk management of food allergens. That means it’s up to each individual restaurateur and manager to decide how to approach food allergen risk in their establishment.

The good news is that nonprofits like Food Allergy Canada offer training for foodservice and manufacturers on the subject of allergens management and safety. The program itself deals with the basics of food allergies and anaphylaxis and teaches the principles that guide the development of allergen risk management procedures that are unique to each company. These include:

  • Risk management and identification
  • Identifying and avoiding cross-contamination
  • Proper food handling
  • Developing allergy-safe cooking processes
  • Safe serving and communication practices

Also by Adrian Johansen: How restaurants can create community by partnering with nonprofits

Making simple substitutions

There’s no question that making your restaurant allergen-free takes strategy and commitment. The good news, though, is that you probably won’t have to overhaul your menu or nix your tried-and-true recipes in order to get it right.

Indeed, your best approach is likely to focus on simple substitutions for food intolerances or preferences whenever possible. For instance, cauliflower can be a superb alternative to white flour when you’re making pizza dough, allowing guests with gluten sensitivities, celiac disease, and related intolerances to enjoy this beloved staple.

Fresh, homemade ingredients

Another important strategy for ensuring that your restaurant is allergen-free is to make as many of your ingredients as possible in-house. This reduces the risk of potential adulteration of your ingredients with unexpected substances that may trigger an allergic reaction in your guests.

This is a particularly significant issue not only in regard to the safety and service of your customers but also because an allergic reaction triggered by a dish not listed on your menu as potentially allergenic could leave your business vulnerable to costly lawsuits and extended shutdowns.

On the other hand, when you are serving dishes made from fresh, healthy, homemade ingredients, not only are you better able to certify the safety of your menu but you can also capitalize on the immense conscious-consumer trends characterizing the market today. You can, for instance, make organic, gluten-free, vegan pasta not only for diners who have food sensitivities but also for those who demand healthier and more humane menu options.

The takeaway

Running a successful restaurant takes a tremendous amount of work. However, every owner and operator knows that it is a labour of love. Few things are more rewarding than seeing the smile on a satisfied customer’s face or hearing the laughter of happy families and longtime friends as they gather around a dining table and enjoy a delicious meal your team has provided.

For far too long, however, guests with food allergies have been overlooked and marginalized by the hospitality industry. When you make the commitment to ensure that your restaurant is truly allergen-free, you are not only committing to serve a grossly under-served market but you’re also tapping into a potentially significant source of revenue growth.

The key is to be strategic and innovative, focusing whenever possible on making meaningful substitutions and making fresh ingredients in-house rather than endeavouring to revamp the entire menu. 

Adrian Johansen lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing focuses on the intersection of business, technology and sustainability issues.