How to cater to customers with dietary requirements

Alphonsine Sabine (Shutterstock)

Alphonsine Sabine (Shutterstock)

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Each year, more people are undergoing exclusion diets after finding that they are intolerant to particular ingredients, or switching to specialist diets due to ethical reasons, from vegetarianism to veganism and more. A recent awards ceremony in London has revealed the best restaurants in the UK for catering towards consumers with dietary requirements. The FreeFrom Eating Out Awards 2016 were hosted at Excel in the London Docklands in late November at the Food Matters Live Event, and aimed to raise awareness of the importance of providing customised dining for those with allergies and intolerances. This year, Labyrinth Holistic Café in Stockton on Tees came out on top, praised for offering 100 per cent gluten free food, catering for diets of all kinds, proving the many opportunities for personalisation within the food industry.

The awards-givers explain that the not-for-profit café is admirable for its community focus, but also because all the staff are knowledgeable, “totally allergy aware, well trained, friendly and passionate about giving others the best experience they can.” They continue:

“Because they wanted Labyrinth to welcome everyone, from all walks of life, that meant all diets too, and they cater for gluten friendly, all allergens, veggies, vegans and also halal. I have never seen such an extensive menu and the food is amazing. The plate was attractively arranged, and the food was colourful, of varied textures and flavours and fillings, all freshly prepared. The idea is that it can all be tweaked at the last minute to accommodate different diets and allergies. It is also incredibly good value.”

Runners up included Knife & Fork in Banbury, lauded for its attention to detail and flavour; Percy’s Country Hotel & Restaurant in Devon, which stood out for its “accomplished gluten free and dairy free dishes”, allowing allergic diners to enjoy a full 5 course menu, and The Royal Oak in Marlow, where the chef had been through the whole menu and prepared a special allergen free menu for the diner.

Why dietary accommodations are important

Statistics from Allergy UK suggest that food allergies are increasing among the UK population, currently affecting some one million adults. But it is not just medically-diagnosed allergies that have contributed to the rise is specialist requirements in diners. Gluten free and dairy free are now trends in themselves, and as anyone with coeliac disease or anaphylaxis will tell you, it is this fashion for free-from, more than concern for serious reactions, that has contributed to the explosion of alternative menus on the UK market. As Big Hospitality points out, there is now an estimated £1 million a year potential in the gluten-free market alone, and thus the potential financial benefits for restaurants are many. As they explain, the ability to cater to allergies and intolerances is to be welcomed and “used as examples of your business’s devotion to its customer base.”

How to cater to consumers with special diets

Catering to the ever-increasing numbers of diners with special requirements may seem like a daunting task, but with a few simple steps, it can be very easy. As Lincoln Hoole, executive chef at Perth’s Beaumonde Catering, told Hospitality Magazine, “The first thing for us is making sure that our staff are educated. You need professional staff that understand that allergens are a serious matter and regardless of whether it’s a life choice or anaphylaxis, our job is to give the customer exactly what they want.” As Big Hospitality also notes, it is important to promote your ‘allergy gurus’ – those employees with knowledge or experience of allergies – to reassure guests.

He continues, “The second step is cleanliness and sanitation. In the kitchen, it’s all about prepping and packing products separately and about keeping those traditional cleanliness ethics in the kitchen.” This principle extends to the restaurant kitchen, where separate areas and equipment should be used for cooking foods containing severe allergens such as nuts and shellfish. It is also paramount to make ingredient information accessible and transparent to diners, displaying allergens in each dish on your menu, and ensuring that staff are well-versed in the recipes they are serving.

It is also important to work closely with any suppliers to learn about their manufacturing processes, so that you can answer any questions about your produce, and above all, to communicate at all levels. Listen closely to individual requests and general recommendations, and remember to publicise the efforts you are making in order to attract new customers.

Top 3 dietary requirement trends and predictions for 2017

Social media for food requirements

In 2017, the material restaurants provide must become more comprehensive and accessible in order to keep up with the growing amount of information available on the web. Not only are restaurants linked with the images social media users share of their food, they are becoming increasingly associated with specifically the free-from options they offer through tags such as ‘#glutenfree’ used on Instagram images. There are also several online resources available such as the website Can I Eat There, which searches thousands of online menus and filters restaurant listings by allergens so that users can see which dishes they’re able to eat before visiting. Another online tool for allergy sufferers was created by Buyagift.com, which works to reveal the food allergy policies of popular high street restaurants in the UK, available to view in map form or through an allergen key. These kinds of directories are set to grow in 2017, so it is important for food outlets to step up their food requirement provisions, and to make their actions in doing so public, particularly on the web.

'Veggan' diets

In the last year, a new diet has emerged named the ‘veggan’ diet. As you might have guessed, this is simply a ‘vegan’ diet, where followers eat eggs, and although it is proving controversial on ethical grounds among strict vegans, its popularity is set to expand in 2017. The majority of its patrons cite the nutritional value of the protein in eggs as the key reason for including this food in their diet. Nutritionist Rick Hay told the Telegraph: “I like the philosophy and health benefits of veganism, but I like to add extra protein into my diet, so I choose organic, free-range eggs.” Whatever your views on this new diet, it is a growing trend, and savvy restaurant owners ought to capitalise on the nutritional benefits of eggs as a selling point in their menus, particularly for breakfasts and lunches.

Personalised menus for dietary requirements

If there’s one thing that large-scale chain restaurants are getting right, it’s how many of them process dietary requirements. Many high street food outlets such as Nando’s and Wagamama provide either specialist allergy menus, listing the potential allergens in each dish and showing which meals individuals with intolerances can eat; or alternatively keep books of this information behind the till. However, 2017 is set to see not just a demand for transparency and information when it comes to dietary requirements, but also a proliferation of options on the main menu itself. We can expect to see allergen icons on menus as standard, plus numerous personalisation options for each dish, from gluten free pasta to dairy substitutions. Whether this comes in the form of checklist-style menus or simply as a key of alternatives, any restaurant seeking to stay ahead in 2017 must allow guests to customise their dining experience intricately to accommodate dietary requirements. The one-dish-for-vegans approach will simply no longer suffice.

Resources

Big Hospitality’s dietary requirement break-down

Allergy UK’s resource on anaphylaxis

Coeliac.org