Customising menus for specific diets

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In Kamila Sitwell’s recently published book ‘Bespoke. How to radically grow your bar and restaurant business through personalisation’ she discusses how creating menus that cater to customisation is something all businesses should be doing.  

Customisation has arrived in the restaurant and bar industry, and it looks like it’s here to stay. Customers are increasingly taking control of what they consume as they analyse menus in great detail, seeking clarity of ingredients and what they mean in terms of calorie and sugar intake.  

In 2018, according to MCA, the UK’s leading research provider on tastes, values or beliefs. What was once considered a passive activity is fast becoming a collaborative effort, with the consumer having the upper hand.  

Responding to the trend in consumer habits is one of the biggest challenges that traditional bar and restaurant owners face in order to remain competitive and attract repeat custom. Overwhelming as this might sound, if you implement the right changes, you will be proving that your business is paying close attention to the specific needs of the consumer.  

The demand for original, specialised and personal choices is a trend which has been hurting even mega brands such as Starbucks, Subway and Chipotle, so you can take some heart in knowing that you’re not alone.  

Influencing this trend is the proliferation of information and consumer feedback on social media platforms. This has significantly swayed consumers’ opinions and helped define their beliefs when it comes to what they eat and drink. The good news is that the hospitality business has always been a reactive one, be it catering to diet fads, serving up popular ingredients and cooking techniques, or plating food on the latest fashion in slate or board. However, what it’s unlikely to acknowledge is that the consumer’s relationship with restaurant food is increasingly descending into love/hate.  

At the turn of the century, the British usually accepted whatever was listed on the menu. No one wanted to be the first to request any variation, even if it was only holding off the mushrooms or asking for a sauce on the side. More recently, though, interest created by TV programmes and chefs’ presentation skills has encouraged people to take greater control over their diets. As the hospitality industry reacts to changing dietary trends such as vegan or flexitarian dishes, restaurants need to up their game in providing for the discerning customer.  

If you’re not already familiar with customisation, in this chapter I’ll show you what it means using examples of who’s doing what and suggesting tips to inspire you to create a more bespoke and tailored experience for every customer. Showing that you’re willing and able to meet a customer’s dietary requirements is central to them enjoying their eating out experience. In prioritising their choices, you’ll show them how much you value their custom.  

Catering for vegans, vegetarians and people with allergies  

Vegan diets have seen an incredible proliferation over the past few years. Whether it’s simply cutting out meat and dairy for ethical reasons, or reverting to a raw food diet to support bodily health, veganism is one of the fastest-growing food trends in the world.  

In the UK alone, the number of self-declared vegans increased by over 350% between 2008–2018, while one third of the population is consciously choosing to reduce their meat consumption. The best restaurants offer more than mere gestural attempts at vegan food, crafting carefully thought-out dishes, enhancing both their reputations and their returns.  

Catering to vegans makes good business sense, and the more adaptable you are to change, the more successful you will be. The statistics, according to Mintel, show that the market for vegetarian food grew from £333million in 1996 to £786.5million by 2011. People who identify as ‘flexitarians’ are moving away from meat as their staple choice (which may account for the growth in the non-meat market), and this fact has caught the industry’s attention. Research by Vegetarian Express in 2016 revealed that 74% of meat-eaters planned to try vegetarian meals out of home in the next year, while one third had already reduced their meat consumption, with 10% considering giving it up altogether.  

According to research commissioned by The Vegan Society in 2017, at least 542,000 people class themselves as vegan. The report suggests the vegan movement is being driven by young people making ‘more ethical and compassionate choices’. Supporting data from the NHS (National Health Service) suggests that approximately 2% of the UK population is vegetarian – roughly 1.2 million people. These are eye-watering statistics to contend with if you don’t intend to move with the times. Therefore, it makes sense to embrace the shift in eating habits and offer your customers substantial and inspiring vegan options.

Without doubt, the hospitality industry has some catching up to do. There are some notable high-street exceptions such as PizzaExpress, which was an early adopter of veganism/gluten-free, including adapting its famous dough balls and offering plant-based pizza toppings. Wagamama also created an entire menu dedicated to its vegan guests that encompasses everything from Pad Thai to gluten-free sorbet.  

Cooking to order and catering to dietary requirements isn’t rocket science. In offering a couple of clearly identifiable vegan menu options, along with speciality non-dairy products that will complement a satisfying meal for your guests, you will attract the attention, and custom, of this rapidly growing market. Furthermore, the ingredients – vegetables, grains, pulses, etc – are relatively cheap to source as opposed to meat and fish.  

The biggest investment you’ll need to make is in your creativity so that your speciality dishes are as appealing to vegans as steaks are to carnivores. In delighting your new diners, not only will you open a new source of revenue, you’ll also enhance your reputation. 

The above is an extract from Kamila Sitwell’s new book “Bespoke. How to radically grow your bar and restaurant business through personalisation”.  For more analysis and insights on how to respond in the competitive, changing world of hospitality by creating experiences,  Bespoke will help raise the restaurateur’s  game providing fresh insights needed to steer a course to customer delight, loyalty and ultimately business success.