Researchers estimate more than 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies, according to Food Allergy Research and Education. Close to 50 million are reported to be lactose intolerant, and around 1.8 million have celiac disease.
While full-service restaurants have slowly defined programs over the last few years to accommodate allergies or food intolerances, Red Robin is updating its allergen program—which has existed for five years—to build a better allergy-friendly restaurant.
Since 2009, Red Robin has provided paper allergen menus detailing ingredients and offering choices for guests with allergies, intolerances, or strong preferences. The brand’s leadership role in accommodating guests with dietary restrictions earned the burger chain designation as the Most Allergy-Friendly Restaurant chain for large restaurants in 2013 and 2014 by AllergyEats, an website listing allergy-friendly restaurants.
In May, Red Robin further strengthened its efforts with the unveiling of its Interactive Allergen Menu, which gives guests the necessary information upfront to customize menu items and dishes to meet their dietary requirements. The chain also trains its wait staff in how to deal with allergies from gluten to soy.
The Interactive Allergen Menu is housed within Red Robin’s Customizer Hub on RedRobin.com. It was developed by Red Robin and Dilip Chopra, co-founder of interactive allergen system Gipsee, along with business partner Atul Ahuja. Guests are offered two options: “Customize Your Nutrition” and “Build a Customized Allergen Menu.”
The Customize Your Nutrition option allows guests to choose a menu item; add or remove ingredients; add sides, desserts, and beverages; calculate the nutritional values; and save the meal created to refer to or edit again later.
The Build a Customized Allergen Menu option allows guests to choose which allergens they want to avoid and view a menu that’s customized specifically to their dietary restrictions. It lists nine different types of foods that guests can ask to avoid: milk, eggs, gluten, wheat, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, and soy.
The system analyzes what guests can or can’t eat, what guests can eat with substitutions, and what different substitutions are available.
“Before the Interactive Allergen Menu, getting information to the customer was cumbersome,” Chopra says. “It was difficult to decipher which menu item would interfere with [ingredients] the diner was trying to avoid.”
Chopra speaks from experience: His daughter has multiple food allergies, and it was the result of the family’s experience at restaurants that led to the development of the Interactive Allergen Menu. Red Robin happens to be her favorite restaurant, and Chopra wanted her and others with food allergy restrictions to be able to enjoy all it had to offer.
The Gipsee software analyzes menu items based on ingredients, and offer choices or substitutions if an option doesn’t meet the guest’s requirements. “If there is a burger you want that’s okay [for your diet] but the sauce has an ingredient that interferes with your preference, the system can offer you choices,” Chopra explains. “It can show you that the burger is okay, but don’t have this particular sauce.”
The Gipsee software also takes into consideration that many ingredients have aliases. “Food is complicated these days,” notes Chopra. “Gluten has 175 different names, and in our database we have all these names. So when a guest checks ‘gluten,’ the database is also checking ingredients based on the most common name as well as its alias.”
For example, a guest might not know that malt vinegar has gluten in it, but the Interactive Allergen Menu does know, and if a guest chooses gluten as an ingredient to avoid, any food option prepared with malt vinegar will also be rejected.
“Accuracy is very important in this situation, and the fact that our database can analyze all this information, including aliases and derivatives, on the fly, is an important feature of the software,” Chopra says.
One of the biggest components in allergy awareness is staff training. If restaurant wait staff views customers with allergies as picky eaters, it can result in an unpleasant experience for the customer, making it likely he won’t return. It’s also important that waiters understand the difference between a food allergy and intolerance. (A food allergy is more serious and causes a reaction by the immune system that often impacts several organs in the body; a food intolerance is typically limited to digestive issues.)
Red Robin includes staff training as an integral component of its commitment to promote allergy awareness.
What Red Robin has done is remarkable, Chopra says. “With the implementation of this system, it has engaged in a training program that includes both the kitchen and wait staff. From top to bottom, everyone is allergy-aware and understands what is necessary to accommodate the guest.
The Red Robin menu includes a statement that asks guests to alert their server if they have a food allergy, so that the team member can direct them to the Red Robin website. Guests can view the Interactive Allergen Menu on their smartphone or tablet on their own, or with assistance from staff.
By Joann Whitcher