How can restaurants increase confidence for hypersensitive consumers?
New Food’s Joshua Minchin asked two allergy influencers what causes them stress when it comes to eating out, and what good restaurants do well to make them feel safe and comfortable.
For most, eating out is nothing but a pleasurable experience; it’s a chance to catch up with friends or family over food that you probably wouldn’t get to eat all too often. Yet for those with food allergies, it can be an awkward, if not stressful scenario to navigate. There are several steps restaurants can take however to ensure that all consumers, hypersensitive or not, can have an enjoyable and safe experience at their establishment.
Why menus are important
In many cases, the difficult choices for those with allergies can begin before they have even left for the meal itself. Daniel Kelly, Founder of May Contain (a blog and podcast seeking to instil confidence in young people with allergies), revealed that the menu a restaurant displays online can be crucial in deciding where to eat in the first place. “If the restaurant does not list the allergens or doesn’t show an allergy menu online then it’s likely I won’t eat at that restaurant,” he told New Food. “However, when I see that they have listed the allergens online it makes me feel that the restaurant is going to take my allergy more seriously.”
This is a sentiment Sarah Knight, CEO and Founder of the The Allergy Team, a resource dedicated to helping families with food allergies thrive, shared. Knight, who has two children with multiple severe food allergies, told New Food: “The clearer it is that a restaurant takes food allergies seriously, the more confident I will be about taking my family there – and spending money!”
How allergy information is presented by the restaurant can be crucial to improving the experience of hypersensitive customers. “It drives me crazy when you look at the menu and the allergy disclaimer is so small, it doesn’t surprise me that people with allergies feel there is a lack of trust with restaurants,” Kelly said. “The allergy information should be really clear, bold and big so it makes people feel comfortable to speak up about their allergies and that they haven’t missed any information.
“It is so important that the information is always up to date and correct. If an allergy menu is on paper, the establishment needs to make sure it is constantly updated if a dish has a new ingredient, whether that’s on paper or online.”
The importance of a clear and detailed menu is not lost on Rupi Zani, who is Safety and Wellbeing Director at Pizza Express. “PizzaExpress declares 22 allergens on the menu, which exceeds the UK Food Information Regulations guidelines. All allergens are clearly labelled to ensure that customers have access to the necessary information to make safe decisions about their food and drink choices,” he told New Food.
“Should any specific allergens not be listed, a QR code is included on the menu which links customers to the relevant information online (featuring a full ingredient list). In addition, every restaurant has a printed copy of the Allergen Information to hand which customers can review.”
How do the best restaurants make consumers feels safe?
Once a restaurant has secured the business of Kelly and Knight through clear and detailed allergen information online and on the physical menu, the next step is instilling confidence in them during the meal itself. “For me, the most important thing with eating out is how you are treated when you walk in the door. Clear information on the website is useful, but a real understanding by the staff is crucial,” said Knight.
Kelly echoed these thoughts, revealing that the best restaurants “start the dialogue straight away and ask if anyone has any allergies on the table”.
He continued: “I rang up a restaurant recently and they asked me if anyone had any allergies even before I got a chance to ask, this made me feel at ease. As soon as I arrived, they asked about who had the allergy and it made me feel confident that they were going to take my allergy seriously and speak with the head chef to make them aware.”
“The best restaurants have staff who immediately put you at ease and show a real understanding of food allergies,” added Knight.
“For example, they may introduce you to the manager who says they will take ownership of your order or they may offer to go and immediately check with the chef or explain they have careful procedures in place to prevent cross contamination.
“They will also often have a system of ordering, making sure the communication goes all the way to the chef and then when they serve the food, they repeat the allergies back to you and say it’s been checked and it’s free of the allergen.”
Yet while some restaurants display exactly the kind of behaviour that ensures Knight and Kelly can have a relaxed and pleasurable meal, others do not. “On the other hand, a restaurant can immediately make people living with food allergies feel uneasy. For example, a parent might explain their child has a dairy and egg allergy and they respond with ‘don’t worry, we have plenty of gluten free options’,” explained Knight.
“This puts allergy families on high alert. Similarly, those who are dismissive or just thrust an allergy menu in your hand but seem to have no understanding of it can create discomfort.
“Kindness is key. Sometimes a restaurant can’t serve us and how staff tell us that makes a huge difference. Those who make eye contact, apologise and have made an effort to try, makes you feel a lot better to those who don’t make eye contact and are desperate for you to leave as soon as possible.
“This is probably driven by embarrassment and discomfort, but it makes a family who lives with food allergy feel terrible.”
“Whilst our waiting staff cannot recommend or tell customers what is suitable for them to eat or drink, we take allergies very seriously and invite customers to inform our team of their requirements when being seated and this information will be passed to the pizza chefs,” Rupi Zani said. “We also hold dedicated allergen training for our restaurant teams with every new menu launch, so that our team can appropriately assist customers.”
This perhaps demonstrates just how crucial well-trained, knowledgeable and empathetic staff are in making a meal out an enjoyable experience for hypersensitive customers.
We heard at Food Integrity what can happen when staff lack sufficient training in dealing with allergens – not only can it lead to safety concerns, but it can erode trust in a business for that consumer.
What can restaurants do to improve?
In an ideal world, dining out should be a pleasurable experience for everyone, but sadly, it’s not always the case.
“We have had mixed experiences,” said Knight. “We’ve been taken by surprise by tiny rural pubs who have been superb, as well as treated brilliantly at large chains… to having had appalling experiences at different branches of the chain, or effectively been kicked out of cafes.”
So, what can all restaurants do to improve the experiences of those with food allergies?
“I’ve found my best experience has been when the waiter/staff have a personal experience and know a family member or friend who lives with severe allergies. They show more empathy but more importantly understand the seriousness of allergies.
“It would be great to see more restaurants working closely with allergy bloggers or people living with allergies so we can share our personal experiences and hopefully make staff more aware of the seriousness of allergies. Then the next time a member of staff speaks to someone with an allergy, they will have that personal connection and perhaps take it more seriously.”
Sincerity was a sentiment reiterated by Knight, who said that the most important thing a restaurant could do was to “have a really good understanding of food allergies. Train staff to know that it can be life-threatening and that it’s crucial to get right, but also that it’s manageable with the right procedures in place”.
Regulation can and should be the core implement in the toolbox to keep consumers safe, but as has been shown by Knight and Kelly, an eatery can follow every rule in the book yet still not offer a satisfactory dining experience.
Our Editor Bethan Grylls opened Issue Two of New Food by asking what food safety culture means, and why evolving form a tick box mentality in this regard is important. Perhaps the same needs to be said of allergen management? It could be a stretch to say that the perception of feeling safe is just as important as safety itself when it comes to hypersensitivity, but I believe it is. You can have all the safety measures in the world, but if consumers don’t have trust in your establishment in the first place, they simply won’t use your business in the first place. Everyone deserves to feel safe and enjoy an evening out.