Innovating with allergy-friendly dishes
For many diners, choosing where to eat means carefully poring over menus before committing—because a growing number of consumers now follow specialized diets or avoid certain foods for health reasons. Catering to these varied dietary requirements can be an opportunity for operators.
According to Technomic’s 2017 Center of the Plate: Seafood & Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report, 15% of consumers follow either a semivegetarian, flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian or vegan diet. And beyond dietary preferences, many diners also need to make sure restaurants can accommodate food allergies like dairy, peanuts and gluten or wheat.
Regardless of why diners avoid certain ingredients, the number of restaurants offering menu items that accommodate those dietary restrictions has grown. According to Technomic’s 2016 Future of LSR: Fast-Food and Fast-Casual Consumer Trend Report, gluten-free health claims at fast-casual restaurants have grown an impressive 75% since 2014.
Replacing ingredients is the obvious choice, but operators need to make it more interesting than simply swapping regular bread for gluten-free bread. Here are some ideas for making these specialized menu items craveable and memorable.
Going beyond grains
Gluten-free consumers have an uphill battle—beyond simply avoiding ingredients that contain wheat and gluten, there’s the worry of cross-contamination when dining out. To eliminate that risk, some restaurants have decided to go completely gluten-free.
Asian Box, a fast-casual chain with locations in California, is one such restaurant. “Our kitchens are 100% gluten-free, so no outside food is allowed in by the team,” says founder and culinary director Chad Newton. “It’s a big deal to a lot of people out there and we feel great that we can offer them that safe environment.”
According to Newton, the response from customers has been nothing but positive. “The gluten-free community completely loves our menu, and that makes us feel really good. I have been approached and hugged by tearful customers thanking us for making a 100% gluten-free restaurant and keeping them safe,” he says.
Operators are familiar with the gluten-free pastas and breads on the market—mentions of “gluten-free” items on menus have increased about 12% in the past year, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor. But simply swapping wheat noodles for rice noodles, for example, doesn’t have to be the end of swapping out gluten. One alternative can be using spiralized vegetables like carrots or zucchini in place of pasta, while some breads can be replaced with plantains, as done in a jibarito sandwich.
Beans are also a great substitute for grains. Black or pinto beans are perfect for burrito bowls, and since beans are a hearty combination of protein and carbs, customers won’t leave hungry. Other popular bean-based dishes can include black bean burgers or white bean and kale stew.
New nondairy ingredients
In addition to thinking outside the box with grains, chefs are also learning new ways to use unexpected ingredients in interesting ways. For instance, aquafaba, the liquid from cooked chickpeas, can be used as an egg white replacement. The liquid has a neutral flavor, and beyond use in baking, it can be substituted where egg whites are called for in cocktail recipes—perfect for cocktail lounges. It can also be whipped and sweetened for a whipped cream substitute.
Cashew cream, made by soaking and blending cashews, can be used as a cheese-like filling (think ricotta, for recipes like lasagna or tortellini), while coconut cream can be used in applications where a slight sweetness would be welcome, such as with whipped topping. Finally, pureed cannellini beans take on a creamy, smooth texture that’s ideal for replacing cream—in fact, it has almost the exact same consistency as cream, so it can be used in vegan/nondairy versions of alfredo, as well as in sauces, dressings and dips.
By making sure diners have great options to choose from, operators not only ensure customer satisfaction—they also increase the likelihood of repeat visits.