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.

Restaurants With Special-Diet Menus

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