FeaturesJune/July 2009 Issue

Restaurants With Special-Diet Menus

More restaurants are serving up special-diet menus.

A renaissance is taking place in the restaurant industry and people on special diets can taste the benefits. From independently owned restaurants to national chains and fast food franchises, the food service industry is recognizing food allergies and sensitivities as a market that can no longer be ignored. The shift in awareness is due to the growing number of people on special diets—12 million Americans have food allergies, 3 million have celiac disease, and millions more have dietary concerns due to conditions like lactose intolerance and diabetes.

The increased need for allergy-friendly dining options has generated industry interest in the special-diet diner. It’s a win-win situation that’s sure to increase business for restaurants and provide a wider trough of choices for food-sensitive diners.

Getting Personal

Kevin Harron is one restaurateur who looks at this trend from both sides of the table. As a celiac and CEO of Burtons Grill, a chain of five upscale restaurants on the East Coast, Harron incorporates accommodation of food-allergic customers into his business plan.

Harron’s career in the restaurant industry spans three decades. He worked his way up from waiting tables in high school and college to managing a group of restaurants in the late 1970s, becoming vice president of restaurant operations for Legal Seafood in 1992 and ultimately launching Burtons Grill, LLC, in 2005.

Harron claims that his special dietary needs give him a career advantage: He understands the nuances of being gluten free. He knows what to avoid and the right questions to ask. This hard-won insider expertise is the foundation for the lengthy gluten-free selection on Burtons’ menu.

Harron was diagnosed with celiac disease at 16. “I had anemia and felt tired all the time. I would lie around on the couch eating Saltine crackers,” he says. The doctor finally figured out what he had, but “they didn’t know very much about the gluten-free diet in the early 70’s.”

Embarking on a career in restaurants wasn’t exactly a carefully thought-out decision. Harron just fell into it when he finished college. He admits the work was challenging in the early years, especially when people wanted him to taste things.

“They couldn’t understand why I couldn’t eat everything. Sometimes I’d take a bite,” he says. It felt easier than trying to explain the diet—but he paid the price. The dreaded exhaustion would return.

Drawing from personal experience, Harron makes sure that Burtons Grill features “everything that celiacs want most.” The leather-bound gluten-free menu includes fried calamari, several pasta dishes, hamburgers on rolls, fried haddock sandwiches, chicken Cordon Bleu, and fish and chips. Two kinds of gluten-free beer, warm chocolate torte and crme brulee round out the selection.

Recognized Gluten Free

Burtons participates in the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP), a project operated by the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG). About 1,400 independently owned restaurants in the United States, Canada and Germany have been GFRAP-approved as safe for gluten-free guests. Restaurants are listed on GFRAP's website by location and style of food.

Certain criteria must be met in order to display the GFRAP logo.

“We ask about ingredients in recipes, brand names, processes and procedures,” says Cynthia Kupper, GIG’s executive director. A pioneer in the food service-special diet arena, Kupper has been working with restaurants since 1997. Her diligence has convinced chains like Bonefish Grill, Outback Steakhouse and Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill to join the gluten-free bandwagon.

There are three levels of participation in GFRAP—basic, advanced and specialized. For basic, a restaurant identifies which ingredients and menu items are gluten free, doing much of the preliminary legwork by the time GFRAP gets involved. For advanced, GFRAP does all the research.

For the specialized level, also known as Gluten-Free Food Service Accreditation, establishments undergo a regular audit of their policies and procedures for identification, handling, production and service of gluten-free foods. Training and unannounced spot checks are part of this process. All three levels are under the auspices of registered dietitians, who are also experts in gluten intolerance.

In 2008, 65 restaurants were approved by GFRAP and new requests are coming in every day, according to Madelyn Smith, who runs the program. Restaurants say the stringent review process is worth it because it brings in guests.

“I was really surprised at the number of new customers this program brought in,” says one restaurant owner. Another cites an 8 to 10 percent increase in business since his establishment introduced a GFRAP-approved gluten-free menu.

Acknowledging the steady increase in restaurants interested in this market niche, Kupper says the trend underscores the need for ongoing vigilance. Not every chef or wait-staff has a good understanding of special-diet nuances. She urges restaurants to work closely with nutritional experts to keep their menus safe and to appropriately handle key issues like staff training and food handling.

Serving Safety

Cross contamination is a concern in any restaurant kitchen and for every special-diet diner. Most food-allergic consumers have a tale to tell—biscotti in sorbet, croutons hidden under lettuce, egg whites used to foam a drink, pancake batter mixed into omelets, rice pasta cooked in regular pasta water. The proverbial allergy radar is always up until the diet has been discussed with the server and/or the chef, the menu has been dissected, and a dish selected.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) recently issued guidelines to help restaurants increase staff awareness and customer safety. In “Welcoming Guests with Food Allergies,” a booklet NRA publishes with the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), NRA recommends that restaurants do the following:

  • Select one knowledgeable contact person to handle the order.
  • Take extra time when preparing food for the allergic guest to avoid mistakes.
  • Discard the dish if there is a mistake and make a new one.
  • Avoid using secret ingredients. Reveal all information to the diner.
  • Give the guest the final decision as to whether an item is safe.

The partnership between restaurant guest and wait staff is the foundation of a successful meal and the bottom line is communication, says Summer McQuoid, NRA’s science and regulatory relations associate.

“There are no secret recipes when it comes to food allergies. There must be open and honest communication between the back of the house (chef), the front of the house (manager), and the guest.”

McQuoid says that food allergens are a major priority in many restaurants. NRA has awarded over 3.5 million ServSafe Food Protection Manager Certificates, a program that includes information on food allergies. And it devoted a month-long food safety awareness program to food allergies in late 2008.

Smart Business

The majority of eating establishments—62 percent—consider allergen-free and gluten-free consumers to be a new and profitable market, according to Kim Koeller, president of GlutenFree Passport and AllergyFree Passport and an expert on special diet trends.

“The repeat loyal customer is amazing,” Koeller says, citing market research her company conducted recently. “Ninety-two percent of gluten-free and allergen-free guests will return frequently to the same eating establishment after a positive eating-out experience.”

That fact isn’t lost on Uno Chicago Grill, a restaurant chain that rolled out two kinds of gluten-free pizza (cheese and pepperoni) in most of its 200 locations earlier this year. Uno began this flavorful effort as a pilot project, offering the pizzas at about 40 restaurants in the Northeast. Plans originally called for rolling out the nationwide program by early spring but the pilot was so successful that Uno launched the branded pizza several months ahead of schedule. (Uno restaurants offer a lengthy gluten-free menu in addition to gluten-free pizza.)

Kevin Harron contends that catering to special diets adds value to the Burtons Grill chain and it also exemplifies the very meaning of good service.

“It’s a privilege when people choose to dine with us. Why should our guests have to worry about their diet when all they want to do is enjoy a meal with friends? We are in the business of pleasing people,” he says.

As an example, Harron talks about a 13-year-old boy who was “blown away when he came into our restaurant and discovered he could order a hamburger on a gluten-free roll. It really motivates our staff when they see a reaction like this.”

Burtons Grill doesn’t do much advertising to promote the special-diet side of the house. Nonetheless, its reputation is growing, mostly by word of mouth. Harron has seen the number of gluten-free requests increase steadily since he introduced the gluten-free menu.

More establishments are expected to begin setting a place for special diets, not just in the United States but around the world. According to Koeller, the global market potential is enormous, with over 300 million people worldwide who are managing food allergies, intolerances and other special diets.

“Gluten-free and allergen-free guests are a profitable and loyal market globally,” she says. “There’s a terrific opportunity for increased revenues when food service professionals ‘get it’ and customers feel safe.” LW

Comments (10)

When dining out in restaurants that are known to have gluten-free menus, I still take it a step further and ask the server if they have a dedicated fryer. That question is usually met with a puzzled look. I will then ask if the fryer is used exclusively for the French fries. If the server responds with a yes, I feel pretty confident it's safe to eat there and trust the staff understands cross contamination (provided the fries are not coated). Unfortunately, the question often reveals that breaded items are also being cooked in the same fryer which tells me there will be a problem.

Posted by: KatO | October 7, 2014 6:47 AM    Report this comment

While all of this is great for the east coast, living in Alaska is at times challeging when attempting to enjoy a night out in a good restaurant. Recently, I spent two weeks in California and found it extremely difficult to find gf foods in their supermarkets. I guess I wasn't shopping in the right places, but Disneyland had gf foods and I didn't get sick. That was very nice.

Posted by: Lisa L M | October 23, 2012 3:30 PM    Report this comment

AllergyEats just hosted the first Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs yesterday which was a big success! Restaurateurs that participated heard from Panel 1 (two of the best allergists in the Boston area plus a 20+ year advocate) about the basics of food allergies and intolerances - including how we in the community live our lives and what restaurants need to understand to safely accommodate us - and they were captivated! Then they heard from 3 top New England-based restaurateurs on Panel 2 - all from very allergy-friendly restaurants/chains - who were there to tell them of the amazing benefits they've reaped from being allergy-friendly as well as how the most important investment is commitment! Panel 3 included two great trainers, one who started the AllerTrain certification program and the other from the National Restaurant Association, who again gave attendees the confidence that yes, they could do this and it's not overly expensive or onerous. And Panel 4, which included an advocate & former mutual fund manager as well as a consultant to restaurants on marketing for results, illustrated to them how appreciative and loyal the food allergy community is to those restaurants that "get it" and thus how beneficial it is to BOTH the community and the restaurant's profits for the restaurant to become allergy-friendly. More restaurateurs were educated about our cause yesterday! And over 90% of those that responded on feedback cards said they would be back for next year's event. Let's hope they bring lots of friends and colleagues!

Posted by: PAUL A | October 17, 2012 3:39 PM    Report this comment

I am happy that there is an increasing awareness of food issues. There are so many differnet combinations of intolerances that it would be hard for any restaurant to cover them all. I am on the low FODMAP diet and have a hard time finding gluten free products that do not contain guar gum or inulin. I would still have to look at the ingredients on any GF rolls to make sure I could eat them.

Posted by: Tammara S | October 17, 2012 10:20 AM    Report this comment

A few yrs ago, I found Burton's Grill from another interview the CEO gave. What a treat it is to be able to go to a restaurant and NOT have to worry, or question everything that I order. One time, my husband and I even went to a GF 'Wine and Dinner' tasting they had. My husband thought he might suffer thru it for me but he ended up having a great time. Thanks Burton's for being in the Boston area. :0)

Posted by: Shelley H | October 17, 2012 7:19 AM    Report this comment

I have championed the cause of celiac education repeatedly to the nausea of my guests. "Oh, there she goes again!" They know I will continue to hound at our restauranteurs who know little if anything about our disease. On a couple of occasions, a chef would sit down beside me and listen to my speech. They wonder what happens when we eat something with gluten. And are baffled to learn we don't all have the same reactions. I like it when I get a proactive chef to talk with. Then I know he is being careful in the food preparation. Sometimes, I go to restaurants, and take the chance because the menu is so tempting! And yes, I usually end up paying for it with either a queasy stomach or anal pruritis before bedtime. I often say this disease is a pain in the butt--literally. I will be so glad when I can enter any restaurant and eat safely. Lack of education? A psychiatrist who knew nothing about depression and anxiety related to Celiac ended up getting me handcuffed and taken to the hospital for my angry words, "I'll take things into my own hands." (I planned to seek additional assistance in that statement. Yet, it was perceived I was committing suicide!) It is crucial that this disease is more publicized into the mainstream. Restaurants are a great way! Too many people are on Rolaids, Tums and Zantac.

Posted by: Unknown | October 17, 2012 1:29 AM    Report this comment

This does sound hopeful but gluten free is much easier to include on a restaurant menu. My son is allergic to 7 of the big 8 allergens. The only one he can have is wheat! Eating out is very rare due to the fact that everyone Uses soybean oil because it is the cheapest. We were on vacation in New England (Vermont & Maine) and was shocked that everywhere we ate used canola oil. That would never happen in the big city where we live. I think change can only come when someone in the restaurant business has personal experience with food allergies. Otherwise --if people don't live through what life is like with a food allergic person then they just don't understand.

Posted by: alohabailey | October 16, 2012 4:47 PM    Report this comment

Just got back from Scotland and Ireland and they totally understand gluten-free. It was offered everywhere, even little cafes in small towns. I look forward to the day that I can ask for gluten-free in the US and don't hear "we don't do that" or "what's that?" I live in a resort on the east coast and only a couple of restaurants actually have a gluten-free menu. I hope this organization helps to, at a minimum, get food labeling in our restaurants so that we know what we're eating!

Posted by: barbara w | October 16, 2012 2:10 PM    Report this comment

This was a great article. It gives me hope! For the past four years I have gone traveling and I always have to bring packaged milk, cereal, and other food items with me. If I do not I end up going to a market and buying peanut butter and corn chips for all of my meals. I can not even depend upon a market to not sprinkle something on their rotisserie chicken in some countries/states. I have problems with gluten, casein, carrot family, coconut, & night shade family. Not everyone has it this bad, but there has to be a restaurant out there that manage my problems. I get tired of dropping 5-10 pounds every time I travel.

Posted by: Candace D D | October 16, 2012 12:15 PM    Report this comment

This is so welcome to people who though suffering with allergies try to lead stress-free lives in social situations. Keep up the good work. Em

Posted by: Unknown | October 16, 2012 10:38 AM    Report this comment

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