As an advocate for the food allergy community, I can tell you that people with food allergies wish every food service facility would become more “allergy-friendly.” Yet, as a businessperson myself, I recognize that we all have to make choices and set priorities that are important for the health of our businesses.
Fortunately, these two concepts are actually very much aligned. A basic financial analysis clearly demonstrates that food service establishments that become more allergy-friendly can significantly increase their sales, customers, loyalty and profits.
As a former stock fund manager with 17 years’ experience at Fidelity Investments, I’ve leveraged my background as a financial analyst to determine the economic value of becoming allergy-friendly – and it is substantial. In fact, I can show that accommodating food-allergic diners can boost restaurants’ profits by as much as 24% or more! The business benefits for other food service establishments – including college dining halls, event venues, stadiums, amusement parks, etc. – can also be tremendous.
5+% of the U.S. population have food allergies or intolerances. When dining out, these individuals are the “veto vote” for their parties, influencing a much larger percentage of total customers – roughly 10-15% or more. Further, the food allergy community is extremely loyal to food service establishments that make them feel safe (and they’re very vocal about their experiences through word-of-mouth conversations, on review sites like AllergyEats, in social media forums, via online chat rooms, etc.). According to Living Without Magazine, “92% of food-allergic guests will return frequently to the same eating establishment after a positive eating-out experience.” Lastly, don’t discount the important emotional connection. “A lot of it comes down to an emotional connection as well – show your diners that you care about their health and safety and they’ll keep coming back for more,” according to an article on the QSR website.
Look, for example, at Disney World, widely known as the “Gold Standard” for accommodating food allergies. Restaurants and cafeterias throughout the theme parks and hotels have proven themselves to be extremely allergy-friendly over the last decade. Since 2005, as word spread about Disney’s food allergy dining expertise, food-allergic families have gone there in droves. Many parents actually plan expensive Disney World vacations primarily to give their food-allergic children their first meals out! This positive word-of-mouth praise has increased Disney’s food allergy (and overall) business substantially. To wit:
• In 2005, Disney World served 52,000 special dietary meals
• By 2009, Disney World served 192,000 special dietary meals
• In 2009, Disney World and Disneyland (combined) served 330,000 special dietary meals
• By 2012, Disney World and Disneyland (combined) served 625,000 special dietary meals
As you can see, over the past 10 years, Disney‘s efforts to expertly accommodate food-allergic guests drove huge volume increases. Fortunately, this kind of success is replicable in almost any food service establishment. Consider this:
• Food allergies affect roughly 4-5% of the U.S. population (6-8% of
• Celiac disease has been
diagnosed in about 1% of the US
• Non-celiac gluten intolerance impacts approximately 1-6% of the US population
• 10% of Americans are believed to have at least one food intolerance
• Up to 30% of the general population believe they have a food allergy
• About 30% of U.S. adults want to cut down on gluten in their diets and 20% want to see more gluten-free options in restaurants
Unfortunately, food allergies are a “growth industry” as the number of new diagnoses continues to increase significantly each year. Further, food-allergic children are growing up and starting their own families, and a genetic component to food allergies seems likely. Additionally, adult-onset food allergies and gluten intolerance are also growing at an alarming rate. Thus, the financial opportunity for those who can properly accommodate this community is growing accordingly, and businesses risk losing market share if they ignore this trend.
The numbers clearly show the benefits. If those with the “veto vote” – the food allergy population – are actually driving 10-15% of diner decisions, consider what that can mean to your bottom line given incremental margins on additional customers of 40-50%. Using conservative estimates, it can mean profit increases of up to 24% or more! Certainly, a restaurant won’t recognize these increases overnight, but the food allergy community is very vocal and extremely loyal, and those restaurants – independents and chains, casual dining and upscale – that accommodate them well will earn tremendous reputations, becoming their “go to” restaurants. Just ask Red Robin, P.F. Chang’s, Del Posto, or Blue Ginger. Representatives from each of these restaurants have publicly spoken about sales increases in the double-digit percentages, driven by the food allergy community, and there are many, many more who have said the same.
Fortunately, the investment to become “allergy-friendly” is minimal, primarily one of commitment. Financially, the cost of equipment is roughly $500, while the training can be another several hundred dollars, depending on the number of individuals participating. That’s a minimal investment given the substantial payoff that’s possible as a result – a potentially tremendous return on investment in the thousands of percent!
The data doesn’t lie: any food service organization that wants to stay competitive needs to be allergy-friendly. From a purely business perspective, it’s in food service professionals’ best interests to accommodate the food allergy population, which can lead to significantly higher sales, customers, loyalty and profits. Whether you’re a restaurant, hotel, cafeteria or event venue, becoming allergy-friendly can boost your bottom line tremendously.
The financials of being allergy-friendly is such an incredibly important and timely topic, and I speak about it often at various industry events. I’ll be presenting at the upcoming International Restaurant and Food Service Show in New York City on March 8, so please join me there to learn more about how you can boost your profits, customers, sales and loyalty by accommodating food-allergic guests.
Paul Antico is the CEO and Founder of AllergyEats, the leading guide to finding allergy-friendly restaurants. He is the father of five children – three of whom have food allergies. As a passionate food allergy advocate, he serves on the Board of Directors for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), both nationally and for the New England chapter, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Food Allergy Working Group, the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM’s) Advisory Panel for the Consensus Study on Food Allergies, and the National Peanut Board Food Allergy Education Advisory Council.