Any restaurant owner knows that dietary preferences, allergies, and other food restrictions can complicate the management experience. However, it is possible to embrace customers' unique needs and use them to provide an innovative dining experience. Increasing menu options can even provide a better meal for young children — notoriously picky eaters!
No matter what kind of cuisine you serve or who your typical diner is, providing an open, flexible and judgment-free dining environment will do wonders for customer satisfaction. Adequate staff training, a well-designed menu and careful kitchen management aren't as hard as you might think, and common-sense tweaks to your restaurant operations can be a simple investment in your business's future.
Diners are often vegetarian for reasons related to animal cruelty, but it's becoming more common for diners to go meatless because of concerns about sustainability and climate change. Vegetarians don't eat meat but will sometimes allow eggs to be included in their meals. Young people are also increasingly attempting to be "flexitarian," which means minimizing meat consumption for a variety of ethical and health reasons. Vegans don't eat any animal products, including cheese and milk — which can pose a major challenge for dining out.
Luckily, your restaurant doesn't have to be fully meat-free to accommodate vegetarian and vegan diners. Advertising a few well-crafted vegetarian and vegan options can go a long way. Make sure they're more creative and filling than a simple salad, though. Tofu, veggie patties and noodles can create meals that receive rave customer reviews, even from meat-lovers.
Be careful to track which dishes on your menu use chicken broth or beef broth, as well as which sauces contain meat or fish ingredients. Sometimes vegetarian and vegan dining isn't as simple as swapping in a veggie patty, and experienced meatless diners can tell when a sauce or broth contains meat products. Once you've set which menu items are vegetarian or vegan and trained kitchen staff on how to make them, mark these options on the menu with color-coding or symbols.
Food allergies don't always involve a clear-cut doctor's diagnosis. Occasionally, someone will be in the process of figuring out exactly what they're allergic to and will seek to avoid multiple ingredients. Sometimes allergies to artificial colors or flavors can prove particularly tricky for both diners and managers to figure out since individual components of a dish can have artificial ingredients.
Gluten-free diners offer a similar challenge since gluten is present in many foods, not just baked goods. Ketchup, chocolate, mustard, curry powder, salad dressings and even sausages can contain gluten. Since flour is often used as a filler ingredient, nearly every product in your kitchen will have to be checked to see if gluten is present, but it's worthwhile to protect your customers.
To minimize how much time staff spends handling questions, it may be wise to mark major allergens on the menu with small symbols. It may also be prudent for management to keep a list of which dishes contain artificial colors and flavors so that questions can be answered quickly when a customer makes a specific inquiry.
Make sure staff are trained on how to handle allergies politely and professionally. While it's not unheard of for diners to claim a preference as an "allergy," waitstaff should never assume the customer is exaggerating, as the consequences can be dire.
Kitchen staff should have clear routines for disinfecting work surfaces to prevent contaminating foods with allergens. Your kitchen may also use separate equipment for preparation and cooking of some menu items, especially kosher food.
Generally, Jewish diners will avoid shellfish and pork, Muslim diners will not eat pork products, and Hindu customers will not eat beef. Ensure staff are trained on the basics of religious dietary concerns and how to handle them respectfully. Some diners are more observant of their religious rules than others, so make sure your waitstaff don't make any assumptions. A question like, "Do you have any questions or dietary concerns we should be aware of?" will help make sure your diners are accommodated appropriately.
Muslim diners typically don't eat meat unless it is halal, which means that the animal was killed by a Christian, Jewish or Muslim butcher in accordance with certain rules. In some regions, certified halal meat can be hard to obtain in commercial quantities. Gelatin can also be problematic for diners with religious restrictions since it's typically made from animal skin. One workaround is to make sure there are completely meat-free and gelatin-free versions of some of your menu items.
To prevent accidental exposure to foods barred by a diner's religion, keep careful track of which salads use which toppings, and which desserts contain gelatin. If possible, make sure your menu mentions ingredients forbidden by major religions, especially pork products. Items that appear to be permissible under religious law can sometimes contain disallowed ingredients, like pork-based broth or gelatin, and an unsuspecting diner may end up returning a dish to the kitchen after further questioning.
Offering a meatless version of a meal requires some foresight but is ultimately good business practice for accommodating allergies, religious restrictions and dietary preferences. A simple example is offering veggie patties for hamburgers. While a "no substitutions" rule may simplify kitchen prep, it can make dining out difficult for large groups with diverse needs, and they may end up choosing another restaurant in the future if your establishment is hard to deal with.
Vegan modifications can be much more difficult, but some creative thinking can get the job done. Fruit gelatos can be offered in place of ice cream in a simple fruit-covered sundae. Cheese substitutes and tofu can easily be added to salads, and veggie-laden stir-fry dishes are the proverbial piece of cake for most cooks to prepare.
Color-coding, symbols and entirely separate menu pages can be viable options for restaurants seeking to accommodate a range of dietary preferences. Unfortunately, the more complex your menu is, the more difficult it can be to organize it in a way that makes sense to customers.
If you plan on offering many vegetarian and vegan options, make separate pages for them, with additional symbols for gluten-free, pork-free and dairy-free items throughout the menu. If you offer a wide range of substitutions for some dishes, consider putting your substitution-friendly dishes on one page so customers with allergies, religious restrictions, and general dietary preferences can browse and plan their orders easily.
Having a physically separate menu for vegetarian or vegan options are not recommended, since customers may not always realize a special menu is available. It's also important to keep your accommodation of dietary preferences as discreet as possible to maximize diner comfort.
Ultimately, there is an infinite number of ways to make sure your diners' needs are accommodated respectfully, thoroughly and safely. Awareness among waitstaff and kitchen staff is a critical piece of the puzzle, though, and keeping ingredient-related information in a central location is imperative to prevent mishaps. Customer satisfaction will only increase, though, when you implement plans to accommodate dietary preferences.
Rich Lansdale has been in the restaurant industry for two decades helping run his family's restaurants in Washington, D.C. He writes about his experiences in an effort to help those just starting out and those struggling to make it. One of his favorite things to do is host a dinner party for friends and family. Read more from Rich at Sharpteksupply.com