Eating out for people with intolerances or allergies can be a nightmare. No-one wants a trip to the pub for a quick bite to turn into a hospital visit.
But under new EU legislation which came into force in December, places serving food must now be able to provide clear information about the top 14 allergens found in all dishes.
Under the new law, pubs are required to list the allergens on a menu or chalkboard. Alternatively they can have a member of staff provide the information upon taking orders. Staff must also be trained to understand all 14 allergens, how to prevent cross-contamination and how an allergen could affect a person who is allergic or intolerant.
Licensees around the UK have had their hands full implementing the new legislation. However, some were prepared long before they needed to be.
One of these is The Truscott Arms in Maida Vale, north London, which was taken over by Andrew and Mary Jane Fishwick 18 months ago. With their eldest daughter having coeliac disease, they immediately started offering gluten-free options on the menu.
"We found it natural to consider allergens for that reason, but we didn't want it to be 'our thing'," explains Andrew.
"We always wanted taste to be most important and it was our goal to make it taste the same or better than the gluten alternatives." He explains that one of the most popular items on the menu is the fish and chips, which is one of the dishes that comes gluten-free for everyone.
"No one has any idea that it's gluten-free," says Andrew. "We also do three gluten-free beers and to be able to have fish and chips and a beer when you're intolerant to gluten is really amazing for some people."
He says the response has been fantastic and people visit the pub from all over the world because of the offer. "I've had someone email saying they were over from America and their coeliac daughter has never had fish and chips," he says. "So although we were trying not to make it 'our thing', it kind of has become it."
He believes the issue for a lot of people wanting to cater for those with allergies and intolerances is the fear of getting it wrong. "You have to have a lot of systems in place to make sure there is no cross-contamination. You have to train the staff to listen carefully, always note down allergies and never presume. You have to double-double-check," he adds.
Not only is it law to alert customers to allergens, but "free from" is also a growing market.
According to Kantar World Panel, the gluten-free market will be worth £519m by 2016. And it is younger diners, aged 18 to 34 ,who are most likely to want gluten-free options, according to research by baker Almondy.
It also found that three-quarters of people don't think operators do enough to cater for gluten intolerances, and 48 per cent of those surveyed said they had bought gluten-free products in the past.
Big gap in the market
Almondy's managing director Andrew Ely says: "The demand for coeliac-friendly menu options is not just a trend, especially as a whopping 82 per cent of people think gluten-free food is healthier.
"Our research highlights the gap between supply and demand, so it's essential that caterers get on board
and realise the huge profit opportunity available to them — particularly as 74 per cent of people would be influenced by a gluten-intolerant friend on where to eat."
Another pub that is ahead of the curve in this regard is The Alford Arms in Frithsden, Hertfordshire. It recently took the overall title in the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards for its allergen-friendly menu, which is virtually the same as its regular menu, but tweaked to be made gluten and dairy-free.
General manager Brandon Kirkby tells Inapub: "We're very proud of the award, we've been operating on a dairy and gluten-free menu for over a year now because we wanted to be ahead of
"One of the reasons the judges said we won wasn't so much about the food, but about the team and the training they had. The judges thought it was refreshing that when they spoke to the team, they knew exactly what they were saying, and this is because we do a lot of in-house training."
Brandon wants people who come in with allergies to feel special, rather than awkward. "We wanted to offer them the same main menu so that they feel welcome," he adds.
"But there are a couple of items that are missing from the allergen-friendly menu because it can't be changed enough to make it 'free from'.
"Even if you're not gluten or dairy-intolerant these days, there are so many people who would prefer not to eat it for health reasons anyway, so there's definitely a good market for it."
The Dog & Badger in Maulden, Bedfordshire, was also well prepared for the new legislation with its entirely separate gluten-free menu.
Owner Lindsay Stokes says: "It was becoming more and more requested and we noticed there was a niche in the market, so we launched our own separate gluten-free menu about 18 months ago."
Lindsay and the chef carefully worked out what they could source externally and what they could make on the premises.
"We're quite famous for making our own food from scratch anyway," she says. "But there are a few things on our gluten-free menu that we decided to source, such as bread and pasta, which we get from places like Tesco and Sainsbury's because our usual suppliers don't tend to cater for gluten-free."
Lindsay says providing good gluten-free alternatives is now more popular and easier than ever. She explains that the legislation did not become an inconvenience for the pub, as her team has been trained to answer the questions about allergens for the past six or seven years.
"I'm rather lucky because one of the members of my team is training to become and environmental health officer," she adds, "so I hear about things before the government tells us."
CPL Online and Train4Academy have both launched e-courses to help operators cater for the new legislation.
Both offer foodservice employees an insight into the 14 common allergens, preparing them to identify the allergens and potential hazards posed for people with allergies and intolerances.
Top 14 allergens
Cereals containing gluten
Crustaceans (prawns, crabs, lobster, crayfish)
Celery (and celeriac)
Molluscs (clams, mussels, whelks, oysters, snails, squid)
What is gluten?
Gluten is composed of proteins found in cereal grains, especially wheat, and is related to grains including barley and rye. It can be found in pizza, pasta, bread, beer, tortillas, cake and so on.