Rainforest Café – The Best of the Best!
Allergy-Friendly Dining in the Rainforest
We recently released our 4th annual list of the AllergyEats Top 10 Most Allergy-Friendly Restaurant Chains in America, and once again it was incredibly well-received by the community. Based entirely on the feedback of food-allergic diners using AllergyEats to rate their restaurant experiences, this list always generates kudos, creates controversy and dialog, and provides a surprise or two.
This year’s surprise was the inclusion, for the first time, of Rainforest Café in the Top 10 Chains list. Even more, Rainforest debuted as THE highest rated chain of all 10, with an astounding 4.87 AllergyEats allergy-friendliness rating out of 5! Thus, the title “the best of the best.”
I spoke with Keith Beitler, Chief Operating Officer of Rainforest Café (as well as other subsidiaries of parent company Landry’s, Inc.), to learn more about how Rainforest accommodates our food allergy community so well. [I would note that Keith has a child with an anaphylactic milk allergy and that he himself developed an adult onset allergy to peanuts. Like many of us, his family has had its own restaurant challenges.]
The driving force behind Rainforest Café’s efforts is a policy of “no spare customers,” meaning that they intend to serve and satisfy every guest, regardless of needs. As a family chain, they consider this a responsibility, not just a “nice to do.” In fact, Rainforest Café not only strives to properly accommodate food-allergic diners, but they also set high standards in working with autistic guests to address the special needs of their community and allow their families – like all others – to have a wonderful dining experience.
So How Does Rainforest Café Accommodate Food-Allergic Guests?
First, upon notification that an individual has a food allergy, the chef will come out of the kitchen to speak with the guest in order to determine what he or she can eat. Something I found very interesting is what they do if the regular menu items don’t fit with an individual’s allergy profile. In these cases, the chef will often ask the diner what he or she eats at home. By marrying this answer with the ingredients and capabilities of the kitchen, the chef will design an “off menu” meal the guest will enjoy. I must say that I found this method very ingenious.
When the printed ticket for a food allergy order comes into the kitchen, it is a different color from the rest so that everyone in the kitchen knows to take proper precautions to prevent the inclusion of the individual’s allergens, including cross-contact. When possible, one chef will make that guest’s entire meal in a separate area of the kitchen.
After the food-allergic meal is made, the chef will give it to a manager (still with the ticket, to further prevent mix-ups) so that manager can deliver it personally to the food-allergic guest. Keith stressed to me that this meal is delivered to the table at the same time as the other meals are brought by the server(s). I like how this creates a feeling of inclusion, versus exclusion, for the food-allergic diner.
After the meal is served, the chef will come out and check with the guest to make sure everything has been properly prepared. The hope and expectation, of course, is that the food-allergic diner is enjoying a great, safe meal.
Chain Consistency is Key
No sweat, right? Well, not exactly. Consider that in their Orlando restaurant in Downtown Disney alone, Rainforest Café serves 3500-5000 meals each day, with 150-200 of them being allergy meals! In total, the Rainforest Café brand has 26 restaurants, though they also run the T-Rex brand and others. In fact, and I must confess to being caught off guard by this, Rainforest Café runs two restaurants in the Animal Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World! – one under the Rainforest Café name and the other being Yak & Yeti. I was surprised by this as I thought Disney ran every restaurant in the parks themselves, besides those in the World Showcase at EPCOT. Now, most will know that Disney World is considered the “gold standard” in food-allergic dining, so the fact that Disney trusts Rainforest Café with two in-park restaurants is, to me, a HUGE vote of confidence! [Rainforest also runs another Rainforest Café as well as a T-Rex in Downtown Disney, both individually very highly rated currently on AllergyEats Disney World with a 4.7 and a 4.8 allergy-friendliness rating out of 5, respectively.]
In addition to their fantastic in-restaurant process for accommodating food-allergic diners, I would be irresponsible if I didn’t ask about training and ingredient lists. Rainforest Café provides constant in-house food allergy training and communication with the employees in all of their restaurants. New employees are further trained by those in the specific restaurant they’ve joined. Further, ingredient lists for all food items are available to diners at all Rainforest Cafés.
Rainforest doesn’t have specific allergen menus, which I personally don’t mind as I haven’t found these very helpful given one of my children (and a huge percentage of the food-allergy population) having multiple allergies. Interestingly, they did attempt to create such menus a few years back, but the community’s feedback was overwhelming that the process they’re now using to accommodate food-allergic guests would be much more valuable than handing out allergen menus. [That said, they are now re-creating gluten-free menus for those who request them. Of course, the specifics of the gluten-free dining market make this a more reasonable decision versus allergen menus, though still not a replacement for using proper protocols for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.]
Allergy-Friendly + Loyal Customers = Business Success
Business has definitely picked up since the inception of Rainforest’s new food allergy policies, though they don’t quantify this on its own. However, there’s a palpable change from earlier years when they would not only see families leave due to food allergy concerns, but also wonder how many never even came through their doors in the first place!
At this point, I need to point out that – to his credit – Keith balked every time I asked a question about the financial effects of Rainforest Café’s allergy-friendliness, noting that their efforts were based on doing what’s right for every customer, not simply to bring in the extra buck. Of course, one naturally leads to the other and, personally, I love the fact that restaurants profit by being allergy-friendly. Those who make the significant efforts to accommodate our community deserve the additional business and loyalty we are happy to provide.
This additional financial success they’re enjoying from expertly accommodating the allergy community doesn’t surprise me in the least as I have demonstrated many times – both theoretically and through many real-world examples – that being “allergy-friendly” can increase a restaurant’s sales by 10% or more and their profits by up to 25% or more. If only more restaurants knew.
In all, I was very impressed with Keith and all he shared with me about the efforts Rainforest Café makes on behalf of our food allergy community. I hope that these efforts continue to pay off with the community and that Rainforest will have a lasting presence on AllergyEats’ annual Top 10 Chains lists.
What About YOUR Experiences?
As in any chain or any individual restaurant, there will unfortunately always be less-than-satisfactory or downright negative experiences for some diners. Restaurants are a people business and people are imperfect. I’m sure we’ll hear about a few such experiences here (which I encourage as much as positive comments), but it’s important to keep in mind that Rainforest Café, and the other chains on our Top 10 list, earned their recognition based on the accumulated ratings of individuals in our community, sharing their real-world experiences on AllergyEats. So the reality is that the ratio of positive to negative dining experiences at Rainforest Café within the food allergy community has been very favorable, especially versus other chains. Knowing this, I hope all of you will please help us help you by rating your own restaurant experiences on the AllergyEats app or website – chain or independent, fast food through fine dining, good or bad (or somewhere in between). It only takes a minute, but helps so many.
Praise from the AllergyEats Community
Here’s a sample of some of the praise diners have shared about Rainforest Café on AllergyEats:
- acslobod writes about the Gurnee, IL restaurant: “We love the Rainforest Cafe! We have been there many times and are rather comfortable with their ability and patience to serve us. We are dealing with anaphylactic allergies to Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Dairy, Eggs and Peas. They are very good about cross contamination and will always send a manager over to take your order.”
- KB Sacramento writes about the Las Vegas, NV restaurant: “I was very impressed from the start. The waitress immediately notified the manager of my needs and both the manager and Chef came to the table. He was able to discuss my allergies and what things would be the safest for me to eat and not be worried about cross contamination. He fixed a beautiful plate of food and delivered it personally to my table and also checked on me several times. It was a wonderful experience and I had absolutely no symptoms from this delicious meal. My gratitude and thanks go out to Chef Adam Payne and staff.”
- Minah2012 writes about the Blooming, MN restaurant: “We asked the server if my severely food allergic daughter could bring in outside food, he said sure, but their chef could work with us if we would like to find something for her. The moment we were seated, Chef Fili was there with a smile to answer all our questions. He was VERY knowledgeable about allergens, ingredients and safe preparation. The food and care was superior, we will be back!”
So? What do you think? How have your experiences been at Rainforest Café? What do you think of the efforts spelled out above? If you’ve never been to a Rainforest Café, are you hoping now to have the opportunity? Please share your thoughts with all of us below.