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Local restaurateurs learn tips on allergies

Specialists provide advice on strategy

Nothing irks chefs more than being told how their creations should be cooked.

Perhaps this could explain why, in a time when food allergies and intolerances are more prevalent than ever, some in the food industry still believe that frying a food will take away its allergen, or its gluten.

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“No, frying in 350-degree oil will not take away the allergen,” said Betsy Craig, chief executive of Kitchens With Confidence, a company that works with the hospitality industry to address special dining needs. “So many believe it in their gut.”

Craig was among several food allergy specialists speaking to a group of about 45 independent restaurateurs, managers of regional food chains, and food service operators at the inaugural Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs on Tuesday at the Seaport Boston Hotel.

The event was organized by Paul L. Antico, founder of the online allergy-friendly restaurant guide AllergyEats!, to make food service industry leaders aware that catering to patrons who have food allergies is not only good for diners, but also for the bottom line.

“This is timely and important,” Antico said. “The most important thing to me is that people who want to dine out can have as safe an experience as possible. I want the restaurants to become more allergy-friendly and show them that they’re going to get a lot more business. It’s getting to the point where it’s almost a now-or-never time for the restaurateurs.”

About 4 to 5 percent of people nationwide have food allergies, while 1 percent have celiac disease, a condition that affects the small intestine lining as a result of a reaction to eating gluten, Antico said.

Panelists, including Steve Silverstein, chief executive of Middleborough-based Not Your Average Joe’s Inc., told attendees that despite the industry’s high turnover rate, all employees, from cooks to food runners, should be trained on how to handle food for customers who have allergies.

“It starts with the hiring process,” Silverstein said. “While it may seem overwhelming, it can be done. If you have a good understanding, you document, and you follow through in training, you can execute the plan.”

Massachusetts is among several states that have adopted some sort of food allergy awareness law, requiring food serving establishments to put up posters in kitchens with information on how to prepare food for patrons with allergies, as well as posting signs telling customers to inform servers of any allergies they may have.

It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough, Antico said.

“What I want to do is take that to the next level. Get yourself trained, get yourself in a position where you don’t just know it’s an issue, but where you know how to accommodate it,” Antico said. “It’s great for the food allergy community, it’s being a great corporate citizen, so that helps, but it’s great business. This community is very loyal and the fact that it’s growing, you’re not just getting the 4-to-5 percent of people with food allergies, you’re getting their entire parties – 10-to-15 percent of the population that will travel with that one person who has the veto vote.”

The most common food allergies, known as the Big Eight, are eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, and wheat. Craig told those in attendance that in addition to making employees aware of those, they also need to educate them about ingredients. Many people don’t know that soy sauce, for instance, has wheat, or that tuna can have milk protein, she said.

Restaurants can make immediate changes as simple as training waitstaff to always ask if anyone in the party has an allergy; using different colored plates and separate trays to make sure there’s no cross-contamination; and preparing the food separately, Craig said.

For Antico, the conference was a way to expand his efforts with AllergyEats!, an idea that came to him in 2006, after driving around for two hours looking for a restaurant where his two food allergic sons could eat. They ended up at an unlikely greasy pizza joint that happened to have egg-free pasta.

He left his job as a portfolio manager and decided to become an advocate for the food allergy community. It’s time the food industry sees the value of addressing the allergy issue, he said.

“One way or another, people with food allergies are going to come to their restaurant,” Antico said. “If they earn a reputation now as being strong and accommodating people with food allergies, they’ll gain a ton of loyalty. If they don’t get it for another five years, they may have already lost that loyalty to the cutting-edge restaurants.

“So this is coming whether they want it or not,” he said, “and they can either be in the haves that create goodwill and that make more profits, or they can be in the have-nots.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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