Special Interests Matter: The Real Deal on Specialty Diets

Any good restaurant menu re-build or engineering analyzes product mix, high performers, good margin items, and dishes that need to go away, among other edits. Getting wise to special interest menuing is a logical next step. Gluten-free is not a fad diet, it has been around too long and it isn’t waning. Vegetarian is a staple. Heart healthy has been around since we learned about cholesterol. Simply hushing customers with special dietary demands is bad for business. Turn away from the dark side of dismissing exacting customers as finicky by embracing a proactive take on smart menuing.

Gluten-Free Must-Haves

Trend data indicates that nearly 15% of the US population identifies as gluten-free eaters. Steer away from the dining room to ignore the gluten-free population and you miss a cash pot of patrons that prefer or need to skip gluten. That’s a serious hit to top-line sales.

Without bending your brand or moving the kitchen too far off course, there are plenty of gluten-free items coming from broadline and local purveyors. But be wise and know what’s in the package. Gluten lurks in many forms. If kitchen alchemy is not a sharpened skill, turn to packaging and vendor resources to ensure compliance. Gluten-free diets can be a dietary choice or a medical necessity, so don’t just brush the bread crumbs off of the prep table when handling a gluten-free pizza dough.


Boomers want healthy, Gen X wants flavor, and Millennials want to workshop menus in their own way. The move towards to more balanced eating is grounded in increased vegetable and fruit consumption. Whether organic, local, or even seasonal, there is a macro-trend uptick in vegetable consumption.

Remember when arugula was a sparse herb additive to a few dishes? Now it fills bowls under a spray of dressing. Avocados were a reserved specialty. Now, places like Chipotle go through nearly 100,000-pounds of the pebble-skinned produce a day.

Fruit salad, sliced mango, and berry bowls are as common at quick-serves and convenience venues as potato chips. Their presence is a high-water mark for where this movement is taking us.

For example, visit any college campus and you will trip over restaurants sharing vegetarian dishes for the eaters looking to discover themselves and change the world, one forkful at a time. That vegetable-only diet has been growing some staying power.

Paleo Comes Out of the Cave

Maybe as short on the horizon as the Atkins diet, paleo has gained momentum to earn a nod or two on your menu. The upside? Paleo diets can be an easy fix by locking onto a grass-fed beef option, seafood, eggs, and vegetables. A little recipe research can land a paleo-friendly selection or two without much of a stranglehold on kitchen dynamics.  

Allergy Mishandling

Mess with an allergy and the world of hurt that is unleashed can range from a disgruntled customer to a Yelp meltdown to a legal battle. Allergy awareness has never been more important. The National Restaurant Association has even taken to a formal allergy handling program in the same vein as their widely adopted ServSafe program. Formal training is a good start, but like food safety courses, the practice of allergy handling is vital. Menu tests for servers are helpful for ingredient understanding and a protocol for getting safe dishes from the kitchen to the dining room are worthy intellectual investments.

Religious Restrictions

Kosher and Halal are not new monikers for menus. Many orthodox practitioners may not even foray into restaurants, but the less conservative may seek out options that fall into their parochial dining plan. As with gluten-free adherence, be sure that the ingredients match the diners’ interests.

Menu Icons go a Long Way

A cleverly designed menu is not just for looks, but for the style of eating. To keep up with diners and their dietary interests, turn to conspicuous declarations of compliance. Wilmington, Delaware’s 8th & Union Kitchen’s menu includes an abundance of customer-facing notifications for gluten, vegan, and vegetarian opportunities. Easy navigation eases eating challenges and can make for repeat business. Chicago’s Lyfe Kitchen brings allergen awareness to their menu by adding a nut hazard to their array of menu monikers.

It's also essential that your staff has a proper script when approaching each table, such as “Hi there, I am Dave. Does anybody have dietary concerns I can tell the kitchen? Can I start you with a beverage?” Build an easy approach for a table-touch moment as well as an effective opportunity to glean information from the diners. With a little knowledge, Dave can guide a customer with a shellfish allergy to some alternatives rather than leave his afflicted diner to fish for a safe dish on their own. With the proactive approach, the attack on the kitchen flow is minimized by not having the seafood-hobbled customer creating their own confabulation of safe ingredients. With Dave’s guidance, the awkwardness of having to build an appealing dish is all but eliminated, the guest is happy to have some guidance, and the kitchen isn’t in danger of having to disrupt the flow by reinventing a new dish. Turn the hassle into hospitality. Who wins? It’s obvious, when there is a plan in place.