“Keep the food simple, to keep the customer safe.”
That’s an important mantra for allergen-friendly businesses and one that 30-year foodservice expert, Joel J. Schaefer, lives by. Schaefer CCC, CHT, is an author, chef, and educator specializing in culinary education and product development for food allergies and special diets. He currently works as an executive chef at Concordia University and owns Allergy Chefs, Inc. He will assist IDDBA in launching its new initiative, Safe Food Matters! Focus on Allergens in March.
Food allergies are on the rise worldwide and a growing public health and safety concern. Schaefer says education is the key. “Building trust with customers with food allergies means you have to get it right every time,” he said.
In his pioneering role as former culinary development and special dietary needs manager at Walt Disney World Schaefer streamlined Disney’s food allergy protocols. In an interview with IDDBA, he shared some of the important cornerstones that make Disney’s Special Diets and Food Allergy program the industry gold standard that it is today. He covers these in depth in his book, Serving People with Food Allergies, Kitchen Management and Menu Creation and believes many of these allergen safe food best practices are adaptable to supermarket retailers.
A culture of customer service
Creating magical service experiences for customers who have special dietary requests, whether at Disney or supermarkets, starts with a C-suite commitment to a special diets program. Schaefer said, “Then you need to designate a person to lead the communication process of helping customers, conducting research, controlling internal and external communications, developing products and overseeing employee training.” Where is your business in this process? Ask yourself:
- Do you take care of guests with food allergies?
- Do you have a process for handling food allergy requests?
- Do you have special food items or a menu for people with special diets?
- Do you source allergen-friendly foods and market them?
- Do you learn more about food allergies that will help you better serve these customers?
One in every 25 customers that shop supermarkets either has a food allergy or is shopping for someone who does. Shoppers with food allergies are extremely loyal, according to Schaefer. When they find a supermarket’s deli, bakery or in-store restaurant that takes their requests seriously, and they can get tasty, safe products and meals, you’ve got a shopper for life. Also, they are active in support groups and will tell others about their shopping experiences.
Everyone sharing the same message
Both employees and shoppers need to be properly informed of your special dietary policies and procedures. Develop easy-to-understand messages for your employees, like, “If a customer tells you they have allergies or someone in their family has a food allergy, notify your manager or trained in-store food allergen specialist” or “Always refer to the food label or manufacturer information if there are questions about ingredients. Let the customer decide whether to purchase the product.”
Also, develop easy to understand messages for your customers, such as, “Always ask for a manager or trained in-store food allergen specialist upon arrival at the deli, bakery, cheese counter or supermarket foodservice areas” or “Ask to read food labels or manufacturer information if you have questions about ingredients. You’re the decision maker.”
Corporate websites and social media sites can help share consistent messages. Let customers know whom they can contact with dietary questions and share dietary forms that make shopping easier and safer. Tell them about your fresh department products that meet allergen needs.
Commit to safe food allergen practices
The 4 R’s program (Refer, Review, Remember and Respond) from Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) is the flagship for food allergy safety standards in our industry, said Schaefer. Find it at foodallergy.org and put it into practice daily.
“Ingredient transparency is so important to shoppers today,” he said. “Have a designated, trained in-store food allergen specialist, department manager and/or chef to train new employees and to help customers with their questions and purchases.”
Implement HACCP and designate a “food allergen safety zone” in kitchens and commissaries. Use a designated set of color-coded utensils, knives, cutting boards and small cookware to easily identify them as allergen-free equipment. Avoid cross contact and understand where it can occur in the food handling and prep of each food item.
Ask what products are used at home
Ask shoppers what foods he or she usually eats at home. This will make it easier to suggest a menu item that can be eaten or prepared for them safely. Let the customer decide whether the product is safe for them to purchase.
Engage customers with open communication
Seek feedback often from shoppers with food allergies. Keep an open line of communication going with them through social sites, surveys and focus groups. Start support groups. Ask shoppers for their phone number to contact them after their purchase. This shows you’re genuinely concerned about their experience. Provide cooking demonstrations or tastings of allergen-friendly fresh foods to encourage sales.
For more information on IDDBA’s Safe Food Matters! Focus on Allergens free resources and training and more allergen information from Chef Joel Schaefer, go to iddba.org.
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