When you enter a dining location, you usually ask yourself, “What do I feel like eating?”
For the millions of Americans with food allergies, the question isn’t simply what they want to eat, but what they can eat. While experts are still studying what causes food allergies and why they’re on the rise—multiple factors are likely at play—there’s no question that food allergens are on consumers’ minds.
Kelley Magowan, a registered dietitian who oversees our Higher Education health and wellness efforts, has witnessed this shift firsthand. “Ten years ago the big thing was calories, fat, and carbs. Those are still important, but now clients and customers want to see ingredient lists,” she explains. “We’re seeing guests with not just one, but multiple food allergies and food intolerances.”
The stakes are perhaps highest among the college crowd, as teens are most at risk for food-induced anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. For the first time in their lives, these young adults are managing food allergies on their own.
Knowing we wanted to better serve these students, we set out to develop a concept that was both inclusive of people with food allergies—so they wouldn’t feel alienated—and tasty enough to appeal to all guests. The solution, which came to be known as True Balance, is a stand-alone station that offers innovative meals without seven of the eight most common food allergens: milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, soy, wheat, and shellfish. (The eighth is fin fish, which we kept to provide sufficient protein variety.) We also solve for gluten by eliminating wheat, barley and rye ingredients for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Piloted in 2016, the program will include 26 institutions by the fall of 2018.
“You don't have to sell us, or our chefs, on why this needs to be done. There's no ‘Oh, okay, we have to cook without this or with that,’” says Chef David Leicht, CEC, AAC, culinary lead for 40 colleges and universities in the Mid-Atlantic region. “We view this like an artist looks at a canvas. The fact that we need to apply culinary expertise with a framework is very cool.”
Those of us in the food industry can play a significant role in making life safer for people with food allergies. Here we break down our approach, and the lessons we’ve learned along the way.
1 – Start With Delicious Food
First things first: it must taste great. Everyone deserves an enjoyable dining experience, and nobody wants to feel like they’ve compromised.
To design a menu, we start with our core recipes. If it contains any of the seven major allergens or gluten, we remove that ingredient. Then we take a fresh look. Sometimes it can stand on its own; other times, we’ll make a creative substitution. But if it doesn’t taste right, the texture is off, or the ethnic integrity just isn’t there—then we won’t menu it.
“We develop the True Balance station the exact same way we would develop, for example, Delicious Destinations, our international station,” Leicht describes. “The menu comes first.”
A black bean soup serves as an allergen-free meal that is simple, healthy, and delicious.
With the culinary bar set high, it turns out even students without food allergies or intolerances are drawn to these simple, delicious dishes. “You really wouldn't know that it’s different from any other station,” Magowan explains.
Adds Leicht, “it just looks like another great choice—because it is.”
2 – Be Prepared
Our commitment to safety starts with our approved manufacturers, whose ingredient lists we can trust to be accurate and not contain major allergens when necessary. If we need to go outside this network to acquire a new ingredient, we vet that new vendor rigorously.
“Where the ingredients come from is extremely important, not just for transparency, but to ensure that it aligns with the recipe, the menu, and of course, the labeling,” says Leicht.
It also helps to have insights about our guests. In many higher education locations, our dining manager forms a close relationship with Student Accessibility Services, which serves students with food allergies and other conditions that require accommodations. That data informs our menus and quantities before students even walk through the door. We know about their special dietary needs—and we’re prepared to meet them.
3 – Prevent Cross-Contact
When you have a food allergy, even a small trace of that food can cause a reaction, such as airborne wheat flour or steam generated from cooking shellfish. So while True Balance stations are integrated into the larger dining experience, things are quite different in the back of the house. Each safety measure is designed to prevent allergens from transferring from one food to another, called cross-contact.
Rendering of a True Balance station
We separate True Balance recipe ingredients from other menu items when they arrive until the moment the dish is served. We prepare True Balance menu items first, using dedicated dishes and utensils, or ones that have been thoroughly washed and sanitized between uses. You’ll also see our associates cleaning and sanitizing work surfaces on a regular basis.
Another important piece of the puzzle: True Balance is not a self-service station. Our associates are required to serve every student with a new, clean plate to mitigate risk—and be able to explain the reason why.
“We need to follow those processes and procedures to be able to offer a concept like this in an open-kitchen environment and make sure that it’s still safe,” Magowan emphasizes.
4 – Invest In Training
Our multi-pronged approach to staff education includes in-person demonstrations, online trainings, and monthly calls. The month of August tends to be the best time for formal training. Our senior chefs visit designated locations to showcase best practices, from describing the menu, to preparing it and presenting it. Aramark “food champions” make return visits as needed over the course of the semester.
Our clients understand that offering a True Balance station comes with a lot of responsibility. “It’s essential that nothing falls through the cracks,” says Magowan, who receives regular checklists from each school, to ensure they are following proper protocol throughout the year.
5 – Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
It’s not enough to offer options for people with food allergies. We earn their trust by giving them a peek behind the curtain.
Every day, ingredient and allergen information from our recipes is posted to our station signage and mobile-friendly CampusDish dining website. Customers can filter the menus to know what daily options meet their specific dietary needs, whether it be a food allergy or intolerance, or even a preference such as vegan. This way, students don’t need to flag down a manager every time they dine—and their dining companions are none the wiser.
Beyond traditional communication tactics, peer-to-peer communication is one of the most effective ways to spread the word about our allergen solutions. “If we take time to train students of that same generation in what we offer and why, sometimes it will resonate with a student making a decision on the school or the meal plan,” says Leicht.
Orientation is a pivotal moment to reach parents and students. When families are in a position to choose their school based on dining options and accommodations, it pays to be transparent. We’re willing to walk them through the True Balance concept, menus, ingredient lists, and manufacturer labels—so they can see for themselves that the meals are both safe and crave-worthy.
6 – Incorporate Feedback
As food allergy awareness grows, we must keep up with national trends as well as what consumers are saying. We routinely solicit data via campus visits and our Voice of the Consumer surveys.
The team dives in to the quantitative and qualitative feedback from those who frequent the stations. Leicht has a fondness for the verbatim responses, “I like to read what my guests are saying.”
Highest on consumers’ wish list? Baked goods and desserts. “Those tend to have eggs, milk, wheat, and soy, so it’s been a challenge,” Magowan advises. Not to mention, many alternative flours and milks are nut based. “Our culinary team is working very hard testing recipes and sourcing products to try and meet that request.”
It takes a great deal of diligence to make a concept like this succeed, but the safety and satisfaction of our students with food allergies is reward enough. No matter your line of business, we hope our True Balance journey sparks some ideas and conversations.