Serving Gluten Free & Allergen Free Customers

By Kim Koeller

Over 100 million Americans, or approximately one-third of the US population, require some type of special gluten free or allergen free diet. On a global basis, it is estimated that over 300 million individuals worldwide manage special dietary needs.[1] Because of this, “free-from” food markets around the world have seen double-digit growth rates in recent years.

Gluten free and allergen free lifestyles are a necessity for those diagnosed with food allergies, sensitivities and celiac disease—a genetic autoimmune disorder reflected in a permanent intolerance to gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Once thought to be extremely rare, we know that celiac is the most common genetic disorder in North America and Europe impacting 1 – 3% of the population.

Approximately 15 million Americans have food allergies, with 90% of reactions being caused by these 8 foods: milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. Anaphylaxis, which is a potential life-threatening allergic reaction, also affects 1% of the population.[2]

Stock Photo by Sean Locke

Stock Photo by Sean Locke

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that food allergies result in more than 300,000 ambulatory-care visits a year among children under the age of 18. Food allergies are the leading cause of anaphylaxis outside of the hospital setting.2 Additionally, estimates of those with food intolerances and sensitivities range from 15%-25% of the population in the US, Europe and Australia.2

For this significant portion of society, eating out at restaurants is the most frequently cited concern, as it affects each individual’s quality of life. Many factors influence a food allergic or gluten free diner’s comfort level and experience when eating out. Dining out around the corner from the home or around the world can be very challenging. Each step a person takes in a restaurant is a potential pitfall if communication and understanding of their dietary needs are not addressed properly.

Safety of specially requested meals, lack of staff knowledgeable about gluten and common food allergens, concerns about cross-contact and customer experiences with food reactions are all real-life considerations for individuals managing special diets. For those looking for safe dining experiences, there is research, preparation and planning required to achieve a level of comfort with new cuisines or eating establishments.

Dining out is truly one of life’s greatest pleasures and needs to be enjoyed by all; regardless of whether one is following a medically prescribed diet or a gluten free diet by choice. Restaurant and food service professionals who agree with this guiding principle benefit greatly by making the extra effort to cater to gluten free and allergen free customers.

More and more restaurants have printed statements on menus requesting, “If you have food allergies, please notify your server”. Some single-unit operations do much of their business with gluten free diners and some even with peanut free customers. Many people travel various distances just to sit in a restaurant and enjoy gluten free beer and pizza or go to a bakery offering gluten free or nut free goodies!

What food service providers all around the world are realizing is that customers with special dietary requirements have a lot in common. They are extremely loyal, will travel for safe meals, typically control the destination decision of their dining engagements and virally spread the word about their experiences through social media and word of mouth. If you make one person happy, hundreds, if not thousands, will potentially follow in their footsteps!

If you are looking to expand your customer base and cater to this exploding consumer segment, the path to attracting and retaining this market segment is well worth the effort, and not as difficult as you may think.

Understanding and knowledge gained from AllerTrain’s suite of training courses, coupled with clear and effective communication are key to ensuring safe and enjoyable gluten and allergen free dining experiences for your customers.

Appropriate training and procedures for handling special diets need to be in place as outlined in the AllerTrain courses. Having standard protocols for addressing special needs that are understood by all personnel produces consistent dining experiences for each and every customer. Interaction and communication during the meal are also important as they help ensure proper handling of special requests and safe meals.

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Seven Steps to Ensuring Safe Experiences for Your Customers

In order to successfully handle special diet requests from these loyal customers, your establishment needs to follow seven key steps.

  1. Educate your staff about special diet requirements.
    • Conduct gluten free and allergen free training for your management, chefs and staff based on the AllerTrain suite of training courses as well as in-house education.
    • Talk with other restaurants dealing with gluten and allergen free diets.
    • Monitor training effectiveness and customer feedback. Conduct on-going training and continuous improvement for staff as needed.
  2. Identify specific ingredients and preparation techniques to be potentially modified for special diets.
    • Identify common food allergens in ingredients.
    • Assess what areas of food preparation specific to your kitchen contain gluten and common food allergens.
    • Identify which menu items are naturally free of gluten and common food allergens.
    • Explore potential modifications to menu items based upon specific allergens and ingredients.
    • Determine possible cross-contact and potential changes required in your kitchen.
    • Identify what ingredients and areas of food preparation cannot be modified.
  3. Understand your customer’s special dietary needs and discuss menu.
    • Discuss your customer’s dietary requirements including allergic or anaphylactic reactions.
    • Discuss your menu items and safety factors of dishes.
    • Discuss which menu items must be avoided.
    • Confirm menu items and preparation with chef based upon requirements.
  4. Facilitate accurate understanding of the order and special requirements.
    • Determine if the special order is understood by the kitchen staff under the chef’s supervision.
    • Assess and factor in language considerations with kitchen staff.
    • Determine the feasibility of executing special requests based upon how busy the kitchen is.
    • Assess if order can be prepared as requested.
    • Follow-up with your customer if a change to the order is required.
  5. Ensure fulfillment of special order.
    • Confirm with the chef if the special request can be handled.
    • Monitor fulfillment of the special request.
    • Re-confirm order with kitchen staff prior to delivery.
  6. Deliver and confirm meal.
    • Deliver meal to your customer.
    • Confirm their special request when the meal is delivered.
    • Quickly handle the situation if meal does not meet the your customer’s expectations.
  7. Follow-up with your customer about service and ensure satisfactory dining experiences.
    • Follow-up with your customer to ensure meal is satisfactory.
    • Provide customer feedback to manager and chef as needed.

While fully understanding the seven key steps may seem daunting, developing the knowledge to safely and effectively serve your customers with special dietary requirements is very worthwhile. Your establishment will benefit from being recognized as a socially responsible business and, from a revenue standpoint, you will also enjoy a new loyal, repeat-customer base experiencing an enhanced quality of life.



Kim Koeller is a Master Trainer with AllerTrain by MenuTrinfo and the multi-award winning author of Let’s Eat Out Around the World Gluten Free and Allergy Free series of books, mobile apps, travel cards and language guides. Trusted by customers in over 60 countries, these resources have won 20 quality innovation awards including Best Health Book of the Year, Best Travel Guide and Best Food Allergy App.

As Founder of GlutenFree Passport, Kim is a global business consultant, sought after speaker and world traveler with experience flying over 2.5 million miles while managing her own celiac disease and food allergies for 14-plus years.

An authoritative expert on gluten free and food allergy lifestyles, her media interviews include NBC and ABC TV, National Geographic Traveler, Food & Drink, Radio New Zealand, USA Today and others globally. Kim consults with food manufacturers, restaurants, universities, hotels and wellness providers on product innovation, food management, training, marketing and educational content solutions. Learn more at and at GFAFPassport on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest

[1] Based upon global research compiled by AllergyFree Passport®. ©2016

[2] The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. ©2016

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