20% of the UK population believe they are affected by a food intolerance in some way and it’s thought around 2 million people suffer from 1 or more food allergies. An anonymous survey of top chefs found unsympathetic and misunderstood views still prevails among some, believing diners to be “fussy”, “just making it up” and that there “were no food intolerances 10 years ago”. This latter statement has an element of truth in that there has been a 10 fold increase of cases of food intolerances in the UK in the last 25 years.
For many people suffering from allergies dining out can be a minefield. Many menus offer minimal choice, unappealing options and little to no ingredient information. Then there are additional issues of how the food is prepared and in severe cases the proximity to allergens in the cooking process. There has been a 615% increase in hospital admissions since 1990 for severe food reactions, so this is not something the hospitality industry can afford to take lightly.
Since the introduction of the EU ‘Information for consumers’ legislation came into effect in December 2014, dictating food businesses must make allergen information available to customers, sufferers have seen a marked improvement, with 83% saying they felt restaurants were making it more easy for them to dine out. However there's still along way to go, with many establishments staff training programmes amounting to a mere mention covering the basics, with a staggering 58% of businesses offering no training at all. Any miscommunication can lead to a serious reaction, leaving restaurant owners open to damaged reputations and costly lawsuits.
We've established such ignorance can be deadly but it can also cost you custom. Many people with allergies or intolerances are made to feel an inconvenience to restaurants, or when an alternative is offered it is an afterthought that lacks in quality taste and appearance, something diners are no longer willing to tolerate.
The total value for the gluten free market alone is estimated to be about £380m and is set to increase by 50% by 2019. Having a transparent menu, with multiple options and informed staff can help sufferers feel less alienated and enjoy their dining experience more.
Allergy sufferers are famously vocal on social media, with 100’s of websites and online communities sharing tips on where to eat. When they find a good restaurant they shout about it. These customers are also incredibly loyal. Once you've built that trust, and established the customer is a welcome addition to your restaurant, not a hindrance, they will keep on coming back, and repeat custom is the most valuable kind.
The onus really has to be educating staff. Wait staff are the link between the customer and the kitchen and they are responsible for the safety of your customers. When delivering training it’s vital to instil the need for compassion, as any degree of scepticism will come across negatively to the customer. Waiting staff need to know what allergies are triggered by which food and to never second guess information. If in doubt always refer to the kitchen making them clear of the severity the allergy if raised by the customer.
A few small adjustments to menus can make your restaurant more accessible to people with allergies. Clear labelling is a must. Many large chains are using a symbol and key system to unobtrusively highlight allergen free dishes in their menus. Over a third of restaurants in the UK don't offer a gluten free option, missing out on £10,000's in potential revenue. Try to have at least a couple of options available, restrictive menus are not inviting as many restaurants offer the same unimaginative choices which are tired and overdone. It maybe as simple as exchanging one ingredient in a classic dish for another.
www.canieatthere.co.uk is a website dedicated to allowing allergy sufferers find places offering delicious food, safe for them to eat. You can register your restaurant, creating a profile with pictures, reviews and an allergy break down of your menu opening your doors to hundreds of potential new customers.