Time was when declining an invitation to dinner at a friend’s home required delicate diplomacy. Gracefully backing out by “having other plans” or needing to “stay home with family” typically could result in a fractured relationship. So could any attempt to beg off because of certain dietary restrictions. Even if doing so was a genuine act of consideration on the part of the invitee.

These days, as a recent New York Times article pointed out, dinner hosts seem more than willing to accommodate requests such as “no gluten”, “less fat” or even “salt-free”. This relatively new and tolerant state of culinary affairs, other than keeping more people on the hook for home-based dinner parties, looks to be indicative of a larger shift.

In the time it’s taken for “milk allergy” to become “lactose intolerant”, dietary restrictions have gone from annoying and weird to just another personal preference to be celebrated – and capitalized upon. What’s more, restaurants have gotten into the habit of catering to diners’ needs and wants, as have big-box natural food retailers, some of which boast prepared-food bars that are larger than most miniature golf courses – with at least as many major features. As a result, food restrictions from gluten- and dairy-free to vegetarian/vegan to Paleolithic are providing the food industry a whole other brand of fuel with which to compete.

Not only good, but good for you

It has long been standard restaurant protocol to provide food that’s cooked to a customer’s liking and, failing that, to take back the plate of food to be re-cooked or replaced with something else on the menu.

With more and more people firmly set on maintaining special dietary restrictions, however, it makes business sense for stores and restaurants to go beyond the status quo and rise to meeting a whole new slate of needs. That’s even more true for restaurants, most of which can’t simply rely on atmosphere to draw in a sustainable base of customers. When it comes to winning over the nutritionally minded, restaurants need to pay attention to the message they’re sending as much as to the food they’re selling.

The trend isn’t confined to boutique and high-end eating establishments. An article published last fall in QSR Magazine, a trade publication for the quick-service restaurant industry, suggests that fast- and casual-food franchises have gotten into the game, as well. Not only that, but dietary food restrictions are important enough that many consumers would consider inconveniencing themselves by patronizing slightly slower speed eateries that will take the time needed to please both the customer’s appetite and his or her peace of mind.

“Have it your pre-programmed way”

And that’s where niche food marketing has begun to encounter some unique challenges. According to QSR, adjusting the menu only gets it partly right, especially for the quick-serve sector. Communicating nutritional information to customers in a timely way makes all the difference in winning or losing their interest – and their business:

  • Quick serves like Panera Bread have for years listed caloric counts next to menu items, which is a good start that needs to go further
  • Others, like Menchie’s, a self-serve frozen yogurt shop, have implemented QR codes, which, once scanned, provide detailed nutritional info on a customer’s smartphone
  • Still others, like Denver-based Mad Greens, offer a custom phone app which lets guests check off what they do and don’t want, resulting in fully customizable menus
  • Chick-Fil-A has gone the integrated route on its web site, listing various menu options as well as a meal calculator that allows people to build their lunch or dinner, step-by-nutritional-step. The fast-food giant, with more than 1,700 outlets nationwide, also offers a mobile app – which even lets customers indicate food allergies

A new social order

The time may well come when gluten-free restaurants compete against their dairy-free counterparts, and so on. What seems likelier, though, is that restaurants that already have a decent menu lineup will begin augmenting it with several types of niche offerings. And then — if QSR’s hunches are correct – communicate that info to patrons as thoroughly as possible.

Creating products that meet dietary needs is the respectful thing to do. Beyond that, communicating those products to guests effectively can create a win-win scenario for both guests and our restaurants.Amit Kleinberger, President & CEO, Menchie’s

Not to mention untold options for turning that dinner invitation to someone’s home into a potentially more enjoyable, totally customizable, personally nutritious event…somewhere out on the town.

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