Can you tell me about the history of your company?
I launched the core AllergyEats website just over two years ago to help food-allergic families find allergy-friendly restaurants when traveling. The genesis was my own frustration in trying to find allergy-friendly restaurants for my three food-allergic children.
I recognized that the only way a site like this could work was if I made it a true community site, and as user-friendly as possible. We asked people to rate their own restaurant experiences on AllergyEats - not reviewing the service or ambiance, but focusing only on how well (or poorly) each restaurant catered to the needs of food-allergic guests. We also included links to restaurant websites, menus (including gluten-free), allergen lists, nutritional info, certifications and dining tips for food-allergic families.
Now our biggest challenge is constantly trying to increase awareness and usage. We strive to reach the 15+ million food-allergic individuals in this country so we can continue to get as many ratings on as many restaurants as possible. The more ratings we have, the more valuable AllergyEats will become for everyone.
About eight months ago, we developed the AllergyEats mobile app as a logical extension of the core site. Now users can search for (and rate) restaurants on-the-go, wherever they are. And the likelihood of individuals rating a restaurant experience on their smartphones is higher since they can do so immediately while the experience is still fresh in their minds. So it's a win-win for both the user and the entire AllergyEats community.
What do you hope your product will do for people living with food allergies?
The food allergy community is wonderful - we're always ready and willing to share information with one another. And fortunately, there are a lot of great sites and support groups that encourage and enable this valuable information sharing. However, prior to AllergyEats, there was never a central location to share information about food allergy dining experiences on a large scale. Most restaurant recommendations occur individually on message boards, in support groups, etc. My hope is that AllergyEats will continue to leverage the power of the social web and smartphone apps to become an invaluable resource for food-allergic families and individuals planning to dine out.
I know from experience that dining out can be quite scary for food-allergic families like ours (and it can be especially stressful after a new, first-time diagnosis), but dining out is so socially important in our culture, and I'd like to help food-allergic families become more comfortable when dining out at a restaurant. I remember how special it was for me as a child when my parents took me out to eat - I want to see the smiles on the faces of all food-allergic children enjoying similar experiences. And I truly think AllergyEats will be a great enabler of this.
Do you or a family member have food allergies?
I have five children, three of whom have food allergies. I have a 14-year-old son with tree nut and peanut allergies, a 9-year-old son with allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, sesame, and non-baked egg, and a 2-year-old daughter with an egg allergy. So we've been at this for over 10 years and we don't let our food allergies hold us back from dining out!
What advice do you have for someone who is newly diagnosed (or has a family member who is newly diagnosed) with food allergies?
There is a ton of great information on the Internet that's worth exploring, and there are many local support groups around the country. If a friend told me their child was newly-diagnosed today, I would tell them to first check out the winner of the Best Support Site award, Kids With Food Allergies, which is an amazing site with a tremendous community and wonderful, tireless leader. I'd also tell them to seek out a local support group.
Here in New England, the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America's New England chapter has fantastic support groups that meet regularly, often featuring a guest speaker who is an expert in some aspect of living with food allergies. There are other local support groups everywhere, and they're easy to find through a quick online search. The bottom line is to immediately get involved with a community of others who are going through, or who have gone through, the same issues you are. It's both informative and comforting to get advice from others within the food allergy community. And when that newly-diagnosed friend is ready to dine out, I would of course recommend the AllergyEats website and the AllergyEats mobile app.
Is there anything else you would like to share with About.com readers about yourself, your business, or your food allergy journey?
While I know it's difficult on those families with newly-diagnosed food allergies, I always remind them that it DOES get easier. With so many resources and people who understand and are willing to help, we are all much less isolated than those who dealt with food allergies 20 years ago. At AllergyEats, for example, we strive to make it easier and more comfortable for people with food allergies to dine out anywhere in the country. And we're just one resource that didn't exist a few years ago. The Internet and social media are making it much easier to connect with others within the food allergy community to exchange ideas, tips and advice.
In addition, I make sure that my kids don't feel sorry for themselves because of their food allergies. I remind them that there are much worse things in life and that if food allergies are the worst thing they face, then we're doing really, really well. I always tell them that "everyone has something" - and that they have food allergies. But if we educate them well, teach them what foods to avoid, and most importantly they bring their Epi's, they will be safe.
Is there anything you would like to say about winning the 2012 Reader's Choice Award?
I have a tremendous amount of respect for About.com and the nominees in all the various food allergy categories. It was quite an honor just to be nominated, especially since the app is so new (eight months old). Winning the award however is not a personal triumph, but a reflection on our community and their dedication to helping each other. Without a caring, involved, and engaged food allergy community, there is no AllergyEats. Without their dedication, AllergyEats cannot help others. So I'm grateful for the dedication and compassion of our food allergy community. Because of them, we ALL won today!