Why food allergies should be seen as a business opportunity, not a threat
Director and Founder of AllergyCompanions.com, Liljia Polo-Richards, highlights how a change of perspective can benefit both consumers and businesses.
The last few years have been marked by some tragic and unfortunate deaths caused by allergic reactions to food ordered in restaurants or purchased at takeaway outlets.
Inevitably, these events have left a vast number of food venues feeling apprehensive and over cautious when it comes to serving people with food hypersensitivity.
To further complicate matters, food labelling regulations missed the chance to standardise the way information is communicated to consumers when Natasha’s Law came into force, meaning that some food manufacturers volunteer allergen information that is not necessarily accurate or helpful for the consumer.1
However, as the number of people affected by food allergies and coeliac disease continues to rise, food businesses should embrace this growing trend and seek opportunities in this space.2
In this article, I will explore the way restaurateurs currently deal with allergen information and allergen provision, reflect on the way this is communicated to the consumer and how improvements could be made by making simple adjustments, which will ultimately benefit businesses and their reputation.
Several high-profile businesses have grabbed the media’s attention over the last few years. Irrespective of who was at fault or which loophole companies used to protect their legal stance, young people sadly died due to allergic reactions caused by the food they ordered and ate at these establishments. Inevitably, these businesses learned some tough lessons, their reputation was partly damaged and consumer confidence took time to be regained.
Other establishments who weren’t directly impacted by such events took the opportunity to revisit their own internal policies and ensure their allergen procedures were watertight.
Some chains and independent restaurants also spotted the need to be smart with their menus, create options for a variety of dietary requirements, and remove any unnecessary allergens and ingredients. Making mistakes can be costly and attracting customers by building a strong reputation in this space makes a lot of business sense.
Turning people away is not the way forward.
For example, some big chains do not openly state that they have gone nut free, but their target clientele is largely aware that these ingredients are not used in their kitchens and therefore trust their brands. Offering vegan and gluten-free options is also an almost guaranteed success factor for these restaurants, causing other similar establishments to have followed this trend.
However, food venue owners are also acutely aware that cross-contamination could and can occur in their kitchens; their seasonal members of staff could lack knowledge in the allergen space; their suppliers’ labelling is so overzealous with information that they fear one of their customers could have a reaction from something that has been produced in a factory that handles certain allergens, although these aren’t present in their food, even in trace amounts. Given the high stakes, these combined factors fuel the fear that if something goes wrong, business owners could end up in jail and be liable for any damage caused. Suddenly, customers with food allergies are seen as a threat to a business; an unwelcome guest.
Perhaps they are right in some respect.
However, as the mother of two children with food allergies, I see more than simply a risk. I see a family; I see people who want to enjoy a meal out. I see individuals with a desire to sit at a dining table and share food and jokes together, just as all families do. I also see business opportunities.
Business owners in the hospitality sector should revisit what originally attracted them to this sociable sector. Hospitality, as defined in the Cambridge Dictionary, is “the act of being friendly and welcoming to guests and visitors”. Turning customers away or including strong disclaimers to discourage allergy customers from eating at their venue does not feel welcoming or hospitable – a bit of an oxymoron. It can also damage your reputation and turn customers away.
Ways of managing allergens in hospitality
If allergens represent such a worry for someone running a professional kitchen, then turning people away is not the way forward. However, reducing the number of allergens used is a smart first move, as you are completely removing the risk of any cross-contamination. As mentioned above, nuts and peanuts are pervasive allergens that many restaurants are now opting to remove altogether. This is simply one example and, of course, there are many other allergens that could be removed. If allergens cannot be removed, chefs can consider designating specific areas and utensils to prepare food for people with specific dietary needs, if space is available.
When choosing which ingredients or products to use, restaurateurs should give careful consideration to the brands they select. The more allergens or ‘may contain’ warnings a product lists, the fewer people you can potentially cater for. By removing any unnecessary allergens and risks to the consumer, you are also opening up options that are available to your customers. For example, the majority of desserts tend to be off the table for consumers with food hypersensitivity; either because too many allergens are used to make them, or customers don’t feel comfortable eating them due to possible trace levels in the dish. As a result, businesses are missing out on opportunities to sell desserts or other extras to those consumers who would be willing to pay for them. Small changes in this space could make a huge difference.
I am asking food businesses to rethink their approach to allergens and the way they communicate with their customers.
Customers don’t need to be turned away; instead, rethinking your messages and internal allergen protocols can be a far better solution. Think of threats as opportunities; and embracing opportunities is a sure-fire way to future-proof your business.
About the author
Liljia Polo-Richards is the Director and Founder of AllergyCompanions.com. The website launched in October 2021 as a resource to help people affected by food allergies, intolerances and coeliac disease find and review venues that cater for their requirements across the UK and Republic of Ireland. Liljia is passionate about bringing positive change to the industry and working with businesses (food manufacturers and restaurateurs) that take allergies seriously. She holds a Masters in international business from Birmingham Business School, where she graduated in 2007. Prior to that she graduated at the University of Birmingham in international studies and political science.