First published in FSM Magazine in April 2012
Let’s be honest, as a Society we are getting better at looking after those of our community that have special needs – whether physical or mental, but we are still a long way from being great. Great would be transparent, equal and balanced for all. Great would not require legislation, but would mean that each of us value the opportunity of embracing and helping all of our community, regardless of “need”.
So why am I bringing up the need to cater for specialist groups in the regular piece I write for FSM Magazine? To be honest, there are plenty of people who are better qualified and experienced to write about access issues, many others who can give a much better account of the dietary needs and labelling requirements for food and those who can “and do” champion the needs of the less fortunate.
Its really simple. The reason I am writing about it this month, is that I have had some experiences in the last few weeks that have left me cold wondering at the complete lack of commercial awareness of some caterers and hoteliers. It has been a busy month, I have been around the world and I have seen some astonishing missed opportunities.
Our consulting practice spends a lot of time working out market positioning, opportunities for capturing new spends and exploiting niches. Many of these have to be targeted carefully to be fully exploited. But I began to think, after having had a lunch with a good friend and colleague who is a Coeliac, what a massive opportunity there is if we treat people “normally”.
As a starting point, here are some of the phrases that I have written down in the last month, following some personal experiences I have had with colleagues, family and friends.
In response to a request for a quiet table in a corner because 2 of my family are partially deaf, the waiter replied “can’t we just turn the music down?”
On another occasion, I asked “Does the desert contain cream?” The reply was “I guess so, that’s why it’s called Ice Cream” (It didn’t!)
One of my favourites in reply to my question “Do you offer a vegetarian menu” – “Yes, we have several fish dishes”.
Astonishing, sometimes funny, in a “Fawlty Towers” sort of way and very, very worrying.
The level of knowledge, sensitivity and customer care around “special needs” is appalling. All of these were “normal” environments, with friends, colleagues or family, that wanted a normal, and inclusive, experience. In some cases they were made to feel like they were from another planet! GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE.
I distinctly remember one restaurant, where I had put on the booking “a corner table please, as 2 guests are partially deaf”. The table was in the corner, but the whole game was up as soon as the waiter starting shouting, slowly, at the table, in the most exaggerated over communication I have ever seen. Funny thing though, not been back there since.
So let’s have a look at the figures shall we? 1 in 100 people in the UK are believed to be Coeliac. I guess that’s why Warner Weekend Breaks offer speciality stays with matched menus for these guests. “Safe foods” are hugely important and eating out, when you’re away from home is perhaps the biggest challenge for someone with Coeliac disease. Currently it seems in the foodservice sector, availability of gluten-free foods for customers with Coeliac disease is not keeping pace with demand. The biggest issue appears to be eating out of the home when you are no longer in control of what the ingredients are. What an opportunity!
I interviewed Simon Wilkinson, the relatively new CEO of La Tasca, and their new menu CLEARLY says which dishes are Gluten Free for Coeliac GUESTS. I like the sound of that and he “gets” the fact that one person in a large group will probably be the person that decides the venue – based on safe food and informed menu choices.
Research from Coeliac UK shows us that Members eat out with two to three other people, spend an average of £10-£20 per head and would eat out more often if there was a greater choice of gluten-free foods available. La Tasca must be rubbing their hands together. A targeted, specialist consumer group they can value – perfect!
So, looking at another group, Vegetarians are about 3.6% of the population, and they dont require the higher cost, lower margin animal proteins for their meals. You would think this was ideal as a target audience, but so many restaurants offer appalling vegetarian choices. It would be nice if staff actually knew what “vegetarian” means! It is equally important as a dietary need, as almost always this is a “diet of choice” for strong personal reasons. Surprise, surprise, vegetarians are more loyal, more likely to seek out locations that support their beliefs and more likely to spend. Another perfect target group.
Another couple of examples. In the UK it is believed that 1 in every 3 people could be lactose intolerant, or that 1 in every 200 people have a peanut allergy, which makes all these special dietary requirements a real hassle right? WRONG. They give you a unique opportunity to drive “Super Loyal” consumers to your business and keep them.
So lets spend the rest of this article looking at turning “hassle” into “profit”.
These “special” consumers just want to be treated like any other. Waiting staff don’t look at you oddly if you ask where the beef is from, so why do they treat you like a Klingon when you ask about dietary components? Train your staff to know how to handle guests.
Make sure your front of house team don’t make guesses. This, in the worse cases, can lead to severe illness and even death. This needs to be explained and pointed out. On the “up side” I buy more from informed and pleasant waiting staff. I trust them, I develop a relationship during my meal and I tip better. That must be a “win, win”
The whole industry needs to change from an attitude of “sufferers” and “special needs” to embracing and responding to a complex range of physical and nutritional needs. This needs product development, training and information. The operations must be conscious of the market opportunity, the staff must know about the products and how to describe and offer them and the menu, website and communication must convey this.
We all like to feel special and we all hate being embarrassed. Our industry should start taking some really positive steps towards enhancing and developing these opportunities. However, there is no point listening to me – look at your competition, it is almost certain they are doing it already!