An estimated 32 million Americans struggle with a food allergy. That’s 10 percent of the adult population. In addition, more than half of those with allergies report having experienced a severe reaction to a food. Another 3 million Americans suffer from celiac disease — an immune disease in which people are unable to digest gluten — and countless others experience intolerances to foods ranging from lactose and wheat to fish and eggs. Add in the folks who choose to follow a gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, keto, paleo, halal, or kosher diet for health or personal reasons, and chances are a significant number of your diners are reading your menu with their own special dietary concerns in mind.
With food allergies on the rise, it’s time to focus on incorporating dishes that fit into dietary restrictions on your menu. Here are a few useful tips for meeting your diners’ needs without completely transforming your menu.
It’s a Substitution Problem, Not a Subtraction Problem
Instead of trying to invent multiple new dishes, try making a few tweaks here and there to existing menu items and offering some customizable options. Let customers know they can substitute greens for grains if they’re keto, or offer roasted chickpeas instead of almonds for snackers with a tree nut allergy.
Don’t hesitate to outsource your substitute items, either. There are several major brands that manufacture excellent meat substitutes so you don’t have to worry about creating the perfect black bean burger if your specialty is beef. Or, if you make a killer Bolognese sauce, give celiac-sensitive guests the opportunity to savor it over gluten-free noodles from one of your suppliers. Once you explore your options, you’ll realize it’s actually quite easy to make just a few adjustments and keep the bulk of your menu intact.
Consult a Nutritionist
Consider working with a professional nutritionist or dietician when updating your menu to ensure you are meeting the dietary needs of your customers. For example, cauliflower and mushrooms might provide great textures to work with when constructing meat-free dishes, but they don’t pack nearly enough protein to make for a healthy entree. A nutritionist can help you create meals for your vegan and vegetarian guests that are both balanced and flavorful.
Test and Reassess
Don’t be afraid to test out new dishes as daily or limited-time specials. A quick and easy way to get instant feedback is by asking staff to try your new items, or share customer responses to the new meals. You can also ask customers for their feedback directly by offering something like a free soft drink or dessert in exchange for filling out a short survey. After compiling what you’ve learned, keep experimenting with the new items until you have something you’ll be proud to serve on your permanent menu.
Let Your Menu Be the Guide
Just like all customers, most guests with allergies prefer to make their own decisions based on what they read on the menu. If you have an especially large menu, consider making it easy for them by creating separate sections to highlight gluten-free, vegan, or low-carb options. Another approach is using icons and asterisks to denote which dishes contain allergens or can be prepared another way upon request to meet dietary restrictions. Whatever you choose to do, your goal should be to make it as easy as possible for your customers to feel informed and empowered to make their own dining choices.
You might also want to include a disclaimer on your menu alerting customers if items are cooked on the same grill as potential allergens, or if allergens could possibly be introduced through sourcing, preparation, and food-handling methods.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Talking with your guests goes a long way in ensuring that they feel safe and respected while dining with you. Always have wait staff ask if there are any dietary concerns when taking an order, and then repeat back what they hear. The wait staff should be knowledgeable of all the ingredients and cooking techniques used for menu items and able to explain them if a customer asks.
Communication is also crucial between the front and back of the house. Make sure your POS software allows servers to indicate when an order has a dietary restriction and instruct your wait staff to verbally confirm receipt of the order with the kitchen crew. Keep the kitchen organized so that ladles and other utensils don’t cause cross contamination, and always deliver plates that have been altered for food allergies to the table separately. You don’t want an allergen-free plate to cause a guest to have a bad reaction just because a server stacked it alongside other plates.
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