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Today, the importance of catering to consumers with special diets is imperative to the prospects of any food business. The first step is clear communication with your customer base about their specific dietary needs and restrictions. These include allergies, lifestyle choices like vegetarianism or veganism, or dietary and cultural requirements including intolerances, health preferences and religious dietary restrictions. Once you have a clear understanding of your customers’ needs, you can plan a menu that meets their requirements while still offering a variety of options. Clear labelling of dishes and staff training are important for ensuring customer safety. Implementing the practices below will help you cater to all types of special diets and requirements.
Researchers in Clinical and Experimental Allergy suggests that Australia has one of the highest rates of documented food allergy and hospital anaphylaxis admissions in the developed world. The Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that 17% of Australians avoid particular foods due to an allergy or intolerance, a worrying total of 3.7 million adults. But it’s not just medically-diagnosed allergies that have contributed to the rise in customers’ specialist requirements. 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 Paleo or gluten-free diets, more than concern for serious reactions, that have contributed to the explosion of alternative menus on the Australian market. “The amount of new and specialist dietary requirements have increased dramatically over the past decade and continues to grow year on year,” says Albert Vrioni-Sikkens, the Restaurant Manager at Red Spice Road QV.
Effectively catering for customers with food allergies and intolerances can help set your business apart from the rest, but how is a chef to maintain the integrity of a specially prepared dish while still meeting the customer’s dietary requirements?
The Rice Paper Scissors team takes a multi-faceted approach to catering for food allergies and intolerances, which includes the sourcing of ingredients, food preparation and briefing staff. Head Chef Shane Stafford of Rice Paper Scissors explains that they “provide an allergy matrix which lists the dishes we provide against the most common dietary requirements from gluten to fructose, nuts, lactose et cetera.”
“Some elements of our dishes are prepared prior to the shift and finished to order, which allows an excellent quality to be maintained with a good speed of service. It, however, means that alterations are not always possible. This matrix allows our staff to be clear on what is available that will meet the individual dietary needs of our guests,” he says.
Red Spice Road QV always have a couple of options available for the common dietary needs such as vegan, vegetarian, coeliac and nut allergies. Vrioni-Sikkens suggests that “if possible, create some dietary icons next to those dishes on the menu to clearly indicate what dishes are suitable for the different dietary requirements.”
As for vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets, it is now more convenient to provide meat-free alternatives on the menu. Plantry’s range of plant-based products can now easily be used in any dish you would traditionally use meat for.
The main focus at Rice Paper Scissors is to keep it fresh. “Always read your ingredients and ensure staff are well trained,” says Stafford. Tapioca flour is a staple ingredient at their restaurants, which means there are always gluten-free options on the menu. “There are so many gluten free alternatives in the world today that allow for a high calibre alternative to be provided. It doesn’t have to compromise the dish,” he says.
Vrioni-Sikkens says that “it’s always easier when guests inform [them] of their dietary needs at the time of booking as we have more time to prepare something customised.” But, of course, they always ensure the kitchen can accommodate those with special dietary needs, without notice: “the waiter should ask the guests at a table if anybody has any such needs. They can then work together to find something suitable from the menu and, if there is nothing suitable, the waiter will usually brief the chef with the exact requirements and he or she can create something tailored to the guest’s specific dietary need.” At Rice Paper Scissors, they also recommend guests email ahead of time if they have specific requirements, to ensure their expectations can be managed prior to arrival.
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While both have adverse effects, it’s still important for staff to be familiar with the differences between a food allergy and intolerance and the ways in which each needs to be approached effectively and safely. It’s helpful to remember that hospital admissions for severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) are on the increase in Australia and the most common causes of anaphylaxis are food (most commonly dairy products, hens egg, peanut and tree nuts in children, and seafood and peanut/tree nuts in adults), insect stings and medication.
Red Spice Road QV pride themselves on being able to cater to (almost) every dietary restriction known and empowering their staff with the appropriate knowledge is key to this. “Train the waitstaff to know the menu inside out and be able to assist guests when they inquire about the ingredients and cooking methods,” says Vrioni-Sikkens. You need professional staff that understand that dietary intolerances and allergens are a serious matter.
One of the key issues that many chefs face in dealing with dietary requirements in the kitchen is that it changes the nature of their dish. However, the key message here is to manage the customer’s expectations or explain the reasoning behind not being able to accommodate a request. For Vrioni-Sikkens, “if the guest has a nut allergy we can often do a dish that contains nuts without them or when a guest has an intolerance to raw onions we can omit them from the dish. In an ideal world, we would not do this as it can sometimes change the dish too much and no longer be the same balanced dish that our chef has created and may be sub-standard. If we feel this will be the case then we won’t allow modifications or at least warn the guest that it will not have the exact taste or texture as the chef intended.”
Red Spice Road QV doesn’t view dietary requirements as a negative, in fact, they have found their ability to cater for allergies and intolerances sets them apart from their competitors. “We have become known to be able to cater to any dietary requirement and find that we attract a lot of people with specific dietary needs,” says Vrioni-Sikkens.