Finding An Allergy-Friendly Restaurant - Interview With Paul Antico, Founder Of AllergyEats.Com


AllergyEats is a comprehensive, user-friendly guide to allergy-friendly restaurants across the United States. It is a peer-reviewed directory of restaurants – rated by people with food allergies, for people with food allergies.


AllergyEats has a database of over 600,000 restaurant listings across the U.S. complete with menus (including gluten-free), allergen lists, certifications, nutritional info, phone numbers, website links, as well as other relevant information from restaurants.

Interview with Paul Antico, Founder of AllergyEats.com

Can you tell my readers a little about your background?

Following 4 years at MIT, I embarked on an amazing 17-year career as an analyst and portfolio manager for Fidelity Investments. During this time, I studied tens of thousands of companies, interviewing the highest level executives, in order to learn how to make the best investments for the investors in my fund.

Throughout my last 10 years running the Fidelity Small Cap Stock fund, I spent every day talking to small company management teams and analyzing their businesses to determine what decisions and actions drove success in their businesses and which drove failure. This experience, while spectacular in its own right, proved to be invaluable on my journey to launch and develop AllergyEats. 

You left your previous career to begin www.AllergyEats.com. What prompted you to make such a change? What was the goal you were hoping to accomplish?

My reasons for leaving Fidelity Investments were purely due to the desire for a life change. After 17 wonderful years, at that point now married with 3 kids, and feeling the need to slow down my pace, it was simply the right thing to do for myself and my family. At the time, I hadn’t planned exactly what to do next – I figured it would just come along and hit me. And so it did, in the form of an idea that had been on my mind for a while. 

Two years before I left Fidelity, I was taking my two food-allergic sons out to eat. I understood the important aspects about food allergies – what they needed to avoid, how to administer epinephrine, etc. – but frankly my wife, as a stay-at-home mom, really understood the fine points of how to handle day-to-day management of their food allergies much better than I.

That night, my wife was out of town with my daughter. When I took my boys to one of our go-to restaurants (on a Saturday night at 7:30 – first big mistake, in retrospect), they had a 90 minute wait. So we decided to move on. At the next restaurant we had been to before, another long wait. So again we moved on. This pattern continued for two frustrating hours as I realized how difficult it was for me to comfortably take them to a restaurant we had never dined at before. As I drove, I kept saying to myself “I wish there was a guide, I wish there was a guide.” 

As luck would have it, one week after I formally left my job at Fidelity, I was playing in a charity golf tournament that happened to be a fundraiser for Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America New England Chapter (AAFANE). How ironic?!! At the end of the tournament, I struck up a conversation with the Executive Director of AAFANE and shared my idea. She loved it and invited me to the office to share it with others. They provided great feedback as well – encouraging, yet critical and smart. This was my impetus to move forward.

I had the idea for AllergyEats from years before, realized that no one was filling this important niche, studied past efforts that had failed (so as to see if this was a viable idea or not and how to avoid others’ pitfalls), and now felt that it was something the community would embrace.

What food allergies do your children have?  

I have 5 children. From oldest to youngest, I have:
Tucker (15, allergic to tree nuts)
Ashley (12, no allergies)
Keegan (11, allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, egg, and sesame, also with Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE))
Callan (6, no allergies)
Bree (3, allergic to egg)
So we have quite the adventure keeping restaurant wait staff straight on who can have what! 

We didn’t find out about my oldest son’s allergies until about age 5. I don’t need to tell readers how we initially felt, because we all have that similar scared and confused feeling. When Keegan came along, the breadth of his allergies made life in the house (and dining out) more challenging.

"However, like other families, with time we learned how to manage these food allergies without allowing them to affect our ability to enjoy life to its fullest."
I remember when Bree was diagnosed having a lot of our wonderful AllergyEats community saying how sorry they were for us and wishing us well, but honestly by that point (8 years or so into this adventure) this new diagnosis didn’t even phase us.

"The comment I always share with my kids and others is this: “If food allergies are the worst thing you have in your life, you’re very lucky!” And I couldn’t mean that more. So we don’t stray from dining out or any of the “normal” adventures of life. We choose our restaurants wisely (using AllergyEats of course), aiming to maximize our level of comfort and being sure that everyone in the family has satisfying options."

In a recent interview, I heard you refer to restaurants on your site as allergy friendly as opposed to allergy safe. What’s the difference between the two? 

I never refer to a restaurant, or frankly any place, as “allergy safe” because there simply can be no guarantees. Even the best sometimes make mistakes. That applies to life, not just restaurants. “Allergy safe” implies to me a place where you can let your guard down, and I don’t think such places exist. 
When I refer to a restaurant being “allergy friendly,” on the other hand, I’m implying an establishment where the odds of a food-allergic diner having a safe experience is higher than at non-allergy friendly restaurants. 
There are of course different levels of allergy-friendliness (thus, the 1-5 scale on AllergyEats), but I don’t believe an absolute like “allergy safe” exists.

Do you and your family have a favorite restaurant? 

Ironically, my family does not really have a single favorite restaurant.  Fortunately, with AllergyEats, we’re able to dine out at many great restaurants – just like a non-food allergy family might.  We have a bunch of favorites that we trust as being highly allergy friendly, and that allows us to dine out based on what we’re in the mood for – which is nice.  My hope is that AllergyEats makes similar experiences possible for thousands and thousands of other families.  And I’m proud to say that we’re clearly on that path.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers? 

My goal with AllergyEats is two-fold. First, I want to provide a resource that will make dining out with food allergies a more comfortable experience for our community. Second, I want to use the value of this AllergyEats community to help me as an advocate make the case that drives more restaurants to become allergy friendly.

And here, having had the AllergyEats website live for 3+ years, and the AllergyEats (free) smartphone app for almost two, I am really excited by the results.  Users and raters on the site continue to grow at a very fast pace, and we have some plans and partnerships in the pipeline that should accelerate this growth dramatically.

Meanwhile, our voice in the restaurant community continues to grow, highlighted by the amazing reception we received to the first AllergyEats Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs (the second of which will take place 11/5/13 in Boston, as this will now be an annual conference) and the fact that we’re getting more and more inbound calls from restaurateurs asking how they can work with us.

The two go hand in hand. The more users we attract to the site, the more restaurants will get rated and the more useful AllergyEats will be for the community, thus bringing in even more users, etc, etc. And as our user base grows, so does the power of our voice in the restaurant community. 
It is a great virtuous cycle that allows us to do tremendous work for our entire food allergy and intolerance community.  So we would humbly request that those who believe in our mission and the wisdom of the crowds, please share word of AllergyEats with other members of the community that you interact with.

Visit AllergyEats.com 

Visit the AllergyEats website to find an allergy friendly restaurant in your area or to rate a restaurant based on its level of allergy friendliness. 

In a future blog post, we'll hear more with Paul as he explains how restaurants can benefit by offering gluten-free options to their patrons. 

 

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