AllergyEats in the News — How it all began
“I wish there was a darn guide.”
On a fateful night a few years back, Cohasset resident Paul Antico drove around for two hours looking for a place to take his two boys for dinner. It was a Saturday night and there were waits everywhere — and he had the complicating factor of his two boys had food allergies.
He needed a guide to tell him a restaurant in the area that had proven itself to be allergy-friendly.
Flash forward to today. Antico, a former Fidelity financial analyst and portfolio manager, is the entrepreneur behind a new Web site, AllergyEats (www.allergyeats.com). It is that “darn guide” Antico was wishing for.
The Web site lists more than 600,000 restaurants in the United States and depends on peer-to-peer ratings of how “friendly” a restaurant is in catering to people with food allergies and other food intolerances, like Celiac disease (gluten intolerance). It establishes a star rating and provides space for a written comment.
The information is searchable by geographic location, provides maps and driving directions, lists phone numbers and includes menus, industry certifications and other information of interest to food allergy sufferers when available.
“So many more people out there are being diagnosed with these allergies and (the restaurant industry) is beginning to understand they need to know how to deal with this,” Antico said, who envisions people using the Web site in their neighborhood and while in more unknown territory on vacation.
According the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America Web site, food allergy is more common among children than adults. Ninety percent of all food allergy reactions are caused by eight foods: milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. AllergyEats allows users to search specific to each of those allergies.
“Too many people are being diagnosed with food allergies, and it is especially prevalent in young children. As a parent with a child who has food allergies it’s a really scary thing,” Antico said. “But people shouldn’t be scared to eat out, and this gives them a good starting point.”
As the father of five children, aged 12 to four months, two of whom have food allergies, Antico has an understanding of what a parent of a child with food allergies goes through.
“It’s really hard when you first send your child to a birthday party with his own cupcake,” Antico said, which is one of the main reasons he wanted to design this resource for parents and food allergy sufferers — to take some of the fear out of dining out with food allergies.
Antico describes the site as “dynamic” because of its reliance on user input.
“The database underneath the Web site is constantly changing,” he said.
Visitors are asked to rate restaurants where they have had a dining experience and have specifically told the restaurant about their food allergies. They answer three questions about their dining experience, which is then used to develop a star rating for the eatery.
“I wanted a way to really quantify the information,” Antico said of the star rating.
There is also a space for written comments where he hopes users share their experience and whether the food was fantastic (or not).
The initial response after the Web site’s debut three weeks ago is good, Antico said. Ratings for restaurants in the greater Boston area have risen from a handful to around 80 restaurants, and there are pockets throughout the United States where word has spread about the Web site.
“People who have allergies and parents of kids with allergies have a bond, and with this Web site they are all trying to help each other,” Antico said, adding he expects AllergyEats to have value for more than just those with food allergies. “Everyone knows at least one person with a food allergy and they can be the veto vote (for a restaurant).”
By providing practical information, in addition to ratings related to a restaurant’s approach to food allergies, Antico hopes food allergy sufferers and others will return to the site again and again. In order for the site to be useful, users need to visit and rate restaurants. In order for users to come to the site, they need to find useful information there.
“I know it’s a chicken and egg problem,” Antico said. “The more we help each other, the more everyone is going to benefit.”
Antico is spending the next few months promoting his product and striving to reach that critical mass of users. He has earned endorsements for AllergyEats from the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America and is working on other partnerships. He is writing a biweekly blog and has useful information and links about food allergies and how to deal with them.
And he has plenty of ideas for the future, but is looking primarily to the users to direct the evolution of the site.
“I know I’m doing something good here,” Antico said. “I’m going to do what I need to do to make this succeed.”