From the blog How to Serve Customers with Special Dietary Needs
If your restaurant is like most others, you cannot get through a single day without a customer making a special request:
- Can I get a lettuce wrap in lieu of a bun?
- Do you have cauliflower rice?
- Which appetizers are gluten-free?
- Does the orange chicken have nuts in it?
Such requests should not be surprising. About 60 percent of Americans restrict at least one nutritional component in their diet, according to a 2014 Harris poll survey.
In addition, about 15 million Americans have food allergies, according to the Food Allergy Research & Education organization.
As more consumers follow specialty diets, restaurants have to adapt to these new demands. Although it may seem daunting, there are plenty of ways to provide for these palates and still turn a profit.
4 Dietary Restrictions You Need to Consider
As a restaurant owner, you need to be aware of four key dietary restrictions. Make sure you’re doing everything possible to accommodate these customers so their dining experience is enjoyable and hassle-free.
Gluten-free mentions on restaurant menus increased 275 percent between 2009 and 2012, according to Mintel’s Menu Insights report. Providing gluten-free meals is one dietary trend restaurants have already adopted – and for good reason.
An estimated 1 percent of the U.S. population –more than 3 million people – has celiac disease, the autoimmune disorder that impairs the body’s ability to digest gluten. These diners are especially sensitive to cross-contamination and rely on safe cooking practices when eating out.
Vegetarian and Plant-Based
Vegetable substitutions for carbohydrate-rich foods ranked No. 7 on the National Restaurant Association’s top 20 food trends for 2018. Veggie-centric cuisine also made the top 10 concept trends, along with other trends such as food waste reduction and environmental sustainability.
Consumers know that producing meat taxes the environment, depleting water, land and oil reserves. Livestock also account for 14.5 to 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the New York Times.
In an effort to conserve resources and eat a more nutritionally balanced diet, Americans are looking for plant-based options that better align with their health and environmental preferences.
Low-carb meal plans are largely the product of the ketogenic diet, which some say is merely a revival of the Atkins diet from the early 2000s. The keto diet supplement plan severely restricts carbohydrates to a mere 5 percent of total daily calories and focuses on consuming high amounts of fat instead.
The ketogenic diet is a decades-old dietary plan often suggested to people with epilepsy. But the diet rose to fame in late 2017, when it quadrupled in Google searches. This low-carb, high-fat fad might be a contributing factor in the sudden popularity of cauliflower rice, zucchini pasta and other vegetable alternatives.
Many people fast or omit certain foods as part of observing their religious beliefs. For instance, Catholics traditionally have not eaten meat on some or all Fridays, practicing Jews avoid pork and shellfish, and many Hindus are lacto-vegetarians.
Dietary restrictions are important to consider, especially during religious holidays, such as Passover, Diwali, Ramadan and Lent.
7 Steps to Take When Serving Specialty Diets
Before you jump into the world of specialty diets, it is important to take several steps. They include:
1. Do your research. Find out what restrictions and special requests you get most often at your restaurant. Every restaurant is different, so survey diners and kitchen staff to get a feel for their needs.
2. Revamp your menu. As a restaurant owner, you probably pride yourself in a made-from-scratch menu. That means your staff will prepare low-carb, gluten-free and vegetarian alternatives. Organizations such as the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) will go over your current menu, ingredient by ingredient, to establish which items are worth converting. GIG also offers a certification program, so you can proudly promote your gluten-free dishes.
For vegetarian or low-carb dieters, the swaps are usually simpler, because they don’t require special attention to allergens. Still, pay attention to hidden meat-based ingredients. Many broths and sauces contain gelatin or other animal products.
3. Dedicate space and tools. Safety is always top priority in the kitchen, but it’s even more important to your celiac diners. Use a separate counter and dedicated tools for gluten-free menu items. This will help prevent cross-contamination, which can be harmful to those with celiac disease. The same practice applies to nut allergies. Diners with a severe nut allergy require complete sanitation of cooking materials, utensils and plates.
4. Partner with locals. Is there a gluten-free bakery in town? Use it as your source for gluten-free bread, rolls, buns and desserts. It’s a great way to get the goods you need while supporting the local economy – and a fellow entrepreneur.
5. Use icons to label specialty diet items. Maura Knowles — a.k.a. Mo, the Morselist — is CEO and founder of Mac-n-Mo’s. She is an integrative health coach and recipe developer who created her own allergen-friendly baking mix. Knowles has added easy-to-read icons on her food packaging that declare her Morselicious Mix to be non-GMO, gluten-free, paleo, dairy-free and vegan. Make like Mo and create your own identifiable markers for your menu.
6. Have a list of ingredients readily available. Knowles says when she’s eating out, she wants to “see a list of ingredients and speak with the chef and/or manager.” Most restaurants have an ingredient list or cookbook for their menu items. Update yours with new specialty diet dishes and make copies for chefs and servers to easily access if a customer requests the information.
7. Send out the chef. If you can, have a chef or manager “on call” to speak with diners about their dietary restrictions. Knowles says that during one of her best experiences at a restaurant, the manager and chef took time to speak with her and scribbled notes about what she said. “[They] paid special attention to what items I could eat from the menu,” Knowles says. She recognizes that not all restaurants have the resources to offer special dietary requests, “but those who do are my go-to places.”
Specialty Diet Dishes Can be Profitable
Catering to specialty diets starts with knowing your customer. If you can correctly identify primary requests from your diners, you can restructure the menu appropriately. When developing her allergen-free Morselicious Mix, Knowles encountered many obstacles, primarily costs. But she reassures restaurant owners that the effort to meet your diners’ needs will pay off. “Yes, it will be pricier, but the loyalty of that clientele, if in demand, will outweigh the costs,” she says.
Keep tabs on how well your specialty items sell. Have a reliable payment processing system like Talus Pay that can support your sales analysis. Like the fashion industry, restaurants must keep up with consumer trends and demands. If you stay on the pulse of your customers’ dietary needs, you will be their “go-to” restaurant for years to come.