Arizona entrepreneur creates a lifesaving resource beneficial to businesses and consumers.
Identifying food allergies and awareness of the types of allergens affecting millions of Americans every year is a topic of much concern and debate as our dietary habits change over the years, especially during the holidays.
According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), the world’s leading non-governmental organization engaged in food allergy advocacy and the largest private funder of food allergy research, approximately 32 million people in the United States have food allergies, and every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room.
A lifelong peanut allergy has always posed a concern when dining out for Janylle Radden, founder and CEO of Arizona-based website and app MenuMD. So she created a service to address that, not just for herself but for others with life-threatening allergies to benefit from as well.
There’s an App for That
MenuMD is a service that people with food allergies or dietary restrictions can use to preview a restaurant’s menu and enjoy simpler and safer dining experiences. It started with an aha moment Radden experienced dining out a few years ago. Having lived with a peanut allergy practically all her life, she was pleasantly surprised during a birthday dinner to find a restaurant that provided a listing of every single item on the menu along with a cross-reference of ingredients and allergens.
“I looked down this column and found out what was safe for me. It was chef-approved, and I wasn't relying on a server to have memorized everything and potentially get it wrong,” she says. That unexpected birthday gift was one she decided to pay forward, recognizing how helpful and life-saving this information could be for others managing life with food allergies. She set out to make it accessible to all.
Her research showed that some restaurants individually chose to share allergen content on their websites. If there were any apps and websites, they were review-based and more from a diner’s point of view rather than information about the allergen content specifically furnished by the chefs or owners themselves.
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That eventful evening was almost 7-8 years ago. It has taken time to get MenuMD developed and functional, and it was only in the last two years that it picked up speed, but COVID played spoilsport and threw a wrench in the works, affecting the entire restaurant industry. “Things went a little bit sideways at that point,” shares Radden, who comes from a background working in hospitality for most of her adult life. She gained a good amount of experience of the inner workings of the sector during that time.
A Peek Behind the Scenes
“That’s where my knowledge is coming from, but it's not a technology background,” she admits, “Where there's a big learning curve when it comes to launching an app … it’s been about four or five years in the making. As a restaurant-focused business, I had some momentum, and then everything halted … it impacted my ability to grow for the first half of last year,” she shares of the self-funded effort. MenuMD features restaurants located in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Chicago, Houston, Boca Raton and Delray Beach, with California launching next.
Though ease of use and functionality of MenuMD are important factors, getting in front of businesses and earning their buy-in has been an uphill road. “That's the biggest challenge, just making sure that they can see the value and that the effort doesn't seem like it’s in vain.”
MenuMD allows for search by location or name of the restaurant, pulls up their menus, and you can also log in and save favorites. So, whether you are looking for a new restaurant to try or are invited to a new venue to dine at, it serves as a welcome resource to find out what you can eat based on your allergies and food preferences.
The service is also a saving grace for people who might be embarrassed about their food allergy or uncomfortable having the ‘allergy’ conversation with waiters and chefs during a business or social meal.
Information provided now includes the top eight allergens—egg, fish, gluten, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts—plus sesame, and diet preferences catering to vegan and vegetarian. “For restaurants, it's a benefit as well, because somebody might find a place that they can go to that they wouldn't have thought of before,” she says.
For instance, in the case of Thai restaurants where peanuts are used in some food preparations, searching based on that allergen criteria could potentially provide restaurants where one can indulge in the cuisine without any concerns.
“Restaurants can provide a safer, happier experience, and servers and staff can operate a lot more efficiently,” she shares. “They're not stopping service to go speak to the chef to ask that question. They also don't have to memorize allergen content, and now potential customers can become actual customers.”
On responses received from consumers, she adds, “It took the guesswork out of things. One person specifically stands out and they have a young son who has several food allergies. They were able to go on [the app] and find out that this [dish] is safe as indicated by the restaurant. It’s a good feeling to know, having that peace of mind.”
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An Easy and Simple Solution
Most businesses are approachable and open to having the conversation on sharing more information that will be useful for diners, but some—restaurants with constantly changing menus, frequent farmers table events, or even daily menu specials—understandably don’t consider themselves a great fit for such a service given the everchanging nature of their menu.
Radden initially charged a fee for restaurants to be listed but has since waived it, given how much the industry suffered during the pandemic. And while that fee might make an appearance in the future, restaurants that currently enlist will have a lifetime free opportunity to display their information on MenuMD.
After enlisting, restaurants simply upload menus and edit to display all the dishes on one side and then all the allergens on the other. The chef or knowledgeable manager indicates what allergens are present in each item. Depending upon the restaurant’s capacity to upload their menu and share this information, they can onboard within a few days.
Scaling to have 100 restaurants listed on MenuMD in the next three months is Radden’s primary goal now. “If you've got a favorite restaurant, let them know to check out MenuMD. Consider loading their menus there and making them available to anybody,” she says. “The beauty of it is that we don't really need any recipes. I don't need the secret sauce. It’s just indicating allergens. It's easy for restaurants and for consumers.”