Adverse reaction: companies can profit by improving service to people with allergies

By August 30, 2015Mark Satov

How annoying! You are out trying to have a nice dinner.  You pick what you want in about eleven seconds…who doesn’t love Salmon Amandine? But someone at your table has fourteen questions for the chef about how much salt they use, when they last touched a grain of wheat and which dishes they recommend for a mustard-soy-sesame allergy.  “Why is this fusspot driving everyone crazy? They are over-sensitive and probably like that in other parts of their life.”

Guilty as charged. My daughter is allergic to tree nuts and we are vigilant about it.  She will most likely live a long and perfectly healthy life, but the thought of another ambulance ride haunts us.  Personally, avoiding gluten in the last three years has helped to relieve lifelong stomach ailments.  Many random people tell me that I probably don’t have celiac disease and I should just stop being so fussy.  I want to eat a loaf of bread and lock myself in a room with those people for 24 hours.   Once they are revived our views may magically align.

Six percent of North Americans have life threatening food allergies and that number is growing. That  doesn’t include people who avoid certain foods yet don’t have diagnosed allergies; everything from gluten to nightshades to excessive salt and more.   So at a table of four, the chances that someone is a picky eater are pretty high.  Restaurants, hotels and airlines are fighting for traffic.  So with the increasing prevalence of allergies and food sensitivities you would think that the industry would ‘get it’.

You would be wrong. I fly a fair bit, stay in all kinds of hotels and eat as many meals out as I do at home.  The policy and practice is never the same and often inappropriate.  Some servers harangue you with legal statements about a lack of guarantee, some refuse to give you food because of their view of the risk and many are simply unaware of ingredients or handling procedures.

Some get it. They provide a safe, empathetic experience and as a result reap the rewards either through higher prices or referrals.  Cakes by Robert is a Toronto based cake maker who charges about 2x for a birthday cake because they know people will pay it….the costs aren’t much higher, implying large margins.  Moxie’s is known to be the place to go for people with allergies and groups with a few sensitive types will choose them over other spots.  Disney wrote the book on allergies and is still best in class by about a million miles.  They know they can’t afford to exclude a family with lots of money to waste.

Why do so many places get allergies wrong?

“First, we kill all the lawyers” Lawyers exist…well I actually don’t know why they exist, but I know it isn’t to address customer facing issues. Many organizations ask them to define policy about food allergies because they see the issue as a liability.  As a result companies are actually less likely to make accommodation for fear that doing so implies some sort of guarantee.  If they asked this growing population what they wanted, they would find that all we want is best efforts and full information.  Then we can make our own decisions about what and where to eat.

It is apparently hard to effectively train a transient work force.  Training to deal with allergies is relatively straightforward and inexpensive.   If we can train an awkward fourteen year old on the McDonald’s handbook in a day or two we can train a chef on how to deal with allergies and a server in any restaurant on what to say and what not to say.

It isn’t a priority.  Hypothetically, if you are the only airline in Canada that goes everywhere, has a good loyalty program and business class, you can probably get by discriminating against allergy sufferers.  The allergy community dreads you, but your load factors probably won’t drop, and you are used to be being hated for the rest of your lousy customer service.  So as long as you won’t get sued you may as well do what the unions tell you.  If you are a hotel or restaurant and are full today you may be able to live with 6% of the community avoiding you and taking the other people in their party with them.  But as the issue grows in magnitude, you may want to look at allergy policy more critically.

How should companies address food allergies for profit?

Ask your customers. Ask your patrons (and potential patrons) how they think about food allergies, how it impacts their decisions and how you stack up.  You can then assess the importance of changing your policy.  You will likely find that small things like changing the way you talk to them, or an extra wipe on the table go a long way.

Ask the experts. Full disclosure: I am on the board of Food Allergy Canada (this article is not specifically endorsed by FAC).  That organization has tools and training programs for institutions looking to improve allergy processes.

Turn good service into profit.  People with special situations are happy to pay for accommodation.  Walk down the specialty aisle at the grocery store and see the premiums people pay to get delicious food that is safe.  Don’t be shy to charge an extra $2 for the gluten free bun that costs you an extra quarter.

The list above can be applied to many decisions that service companies have to make about treating their customers: Ask your customers, ask the experts and then turn good service into profit.

For now you can probably survive in the hospitality industry without really being great at food allergy management. You will have complaints and lose a few customers but if the rest of your offering is top notch you may not see the impact.  But as the numbers grow and your competitors get better, think about whether you want this issue to be a deal breaker.   And whatever you do, don’t let a lawyer tell you how to handle your customers.