Recently, I got the opportunity to interview Paul Antico, Founder and CEO of AllergyEats. This popular app and website helps people with allergies and food sensitivities find restaurants they can safely eat in.
Q: Paul, thank you for this interview. Tell us how and why you were inspired to create AllergyEats?
I have 5 kids and 3 of them have food allergies. I didn’t realize what I didn’t know about allergies. One day, my wife was away and I took my 2 sons who have allergies out to eat on a Saturday night. After waiting an hour and a half, we realized the place was not allergy friendly. I was unsure where to go and who to ask, and we faced this problem everywhere we went. I thought, “I wish there was a guide.” At the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America, I mentioned my idea and in February 2010, we launched our site.
Q: How do you compile your list of allergy friendly restaurants? What did you do differently than other resources?
It had been tried before me with little success but I think my background of 17 years in finance helped me. We purchased a database of every restaurant in America and then we crowdsourced, like the way YELP does. Rather than call and ask the restaurant about its allergy policies, we got the community to help. We made it easy for people to find restaurants and rate them. We tried to make it as easy possible for people to use.
Q: Give us a quick tour of AllergyEats.
Just go to our app or site and type the zip code or address, and select the foods you or your family is sensitive to. We set these ratings up by overall allergy friendliness, rather than which allergies they cater to. We discovered that most restaurants who “get it” for one food allergy, “get it” for any food allergy. We have 100,000 restaurants on our site (although not all are rated yet), and 425,000 menus. We also link with Open Table so people can quickly make reservations.
Our rating system is different, too. We ask users 3 questions focused on food allergies, rather than a “1-5” rating scale and put those responses into our algorithm. We feel this gives more accurate selection for our community.
Q: What are your plans to grow and refine AllergyEats?
We are redoing both our app and our site. We are relaunching this year with more features, more community and social engagement and new technology. We are going to offer information on dining in Disney World. Our blog will address more issues, tips and good restaurants.
Our allergy community is very important to us. We want AllergyEats to be for the community and by the community. We hope that our changes will make it easier to rate, sign in and even be rewarded by improving user experience. We want more people to come in, love it and come back more often. The allergy community should be encouraged to eat out. That’s my motivation: to help this community. I also want the restaurant business to shift into doing this. We want to help restaurants and chains serve diners with allergies.
Right now, we are up to over 230 allergies, including night shades. We want to expand to highlight particular allergies.
Q: What have you given up doing “perfectly” so that you can do your best for both your family and your business?
I wouldn’t say I’ve changed at all. Recently, I took my son with the most allergies on a trip to Vermont. We went to Subway – not the most allergy-friendly place, but my son’s favorite. We have to be vigilant and plan in advance. My kids never forget their Epi Pens. If they do, we won’t eat out.
I also make sure this doesn’t define my kids. I don’t want them to feel sorry for themselves. I’ve told my kids that everybody in this world has “something”: allergies, diabetes, being in a wheel chair. It may be something you can see – or not. I’ve told my children with allergies that they are blessed because they have life-saving medicine. We live a normal life. We don’t keep allergy-filled foods out of the house – the rest of us don’t give up what we like. This is their “something” and it’s just part of life.
Q: Any last comments?
We are asking everyone to put 1 or 2 reviews on AllergyEats. The more reviews the more you are benefitting the whole community and gives them a more active voice, especially for restaurants that haven’t been reviewed yet. As we grow, we can partner with companies that focus on food allergies. We’re all in this together.