Eating out with allergies – meet Liljia Polo-Richards, Founder of AllergyCompanions.com, a platform designed to help you find and rate restaurants across the UK and Ireland
This week we are talking to Liljia (you can also call her Lily), who at the end of 2021 went live with her website, AllergyCompanions.com.
Q: Tell us a bit about your story and what made you start Allergy Companions.
A: My little boy, who is now 5, was diagnosed with a severe nut allergy 4 years ago. In May 2021, I visited Norfolk with my family and wanted to take advantage of our time away to book a few meals out. Due to Covid, and also the fear of eating out with my boy’s allergy, this was one of the few times we had eaten out with him since his diagnosis.
I booked to go to a restaurant that seemed to have good ratings (although not related to allergies), I contacted them prior to our visit to make sure they could cater for us and also reminded them on the day that we wanted all our food to be nut free.
Following our order, our food arrived quickly, but unfortunately our allergen requirements had not been taken on board. My chicken dish sadly arrived covered in nuts. This was a real wakeup call for me and my husband James. Allergies are not always taken seriously and a human mistake can cause huge damages, sometimes irreparable.
That night, James and I put the children to bed, looked each other in the eyes and discussed our options and what we could do to help the allergy community.
That night we came up with the concept of what would become, a few months later, AllergyCompanions.com.
A: What exactly is Allergy Companions?
A: Imagine you have a dietary restriction, which means you have to be careful with the food you choose every day and eat at home. Now, imagine trying to find a restaurant or café that can cater carefully and safely for you, but there is no information online other than an allergen menu (maybe not even that) and some blurb on the menu that talks about allergies, something like “we handle all allergens in the kitchen, and therefore cannot guarantee your meal will be 100% allergen free”. How do you know if they are going to be good with your allergies, take your allergies seriously and look after you?
Suddenly, eating out with allergies can feel a scary and lonely place to be. As a family affected by food allergies (my daughter has a fish allergy), we felt very scared and lonely when we first received our son’s diagnosis in 2019. We didn’t know who to turn to or where to find this kind of information. Platforms like TripAdvisor are open to the general public and very rarely have reviews from the allergy or coeliac community.
AllergyCompanions.com is a free review platform that allows anyone dining out in the UK and Ireland to review and rate food venues based on their allergy friendliness. It also allows restaurants and hospitality venues to promote themselves if they are passionate about catering for those with dietary restrictions.
Allergy Companions also loves shining spotlights on great brands that are designed to improve the lives of those impacted by allergies, through our Star Brands page.
Q: I have a food allergy. How do I submit a review on your website?
A: The first thing you need to do is go on AllergyCompanions.com. On the home page there is a search bar.
All you have to do is write the name of the restaurant or venue you’ve visited (e.g., Nando’s Sutton Coldfield). You will then see the place coming up in your search; you now need to click on it. In this case “Nando’s – Sutton Coldfield”. Click on the red “Review this venue” button, which will then allow you to fill out all the mandatory and non-mandatory fields on the form.
Once you have entered all the required information (it should only take you 1-2 minutes), the “Submit review” button will turn red. You are ready to submit your first review!
You will then receive an email from Allergy Companions, thanking you for your review, which will be approved by the AC team. You should find the process to submit a review quick and easy.
Remember, sharing is caring. The more experiences we all share on the platform, the more we can all benefit from information that can help us live an easier and better life with food allergies.
Q: I am on your website, and I am looking for recommendations in London. How do I find them?
A: If you are looking for places to eat in London, you have two options. The first one is to search for “London” on the home page and click on London. The second one is to go to the Locations page and look for London. Both options will open up a list of venues that have been reviewed by our community. You can either browse the list and see what takes your fancy, or you can use the filters to see what places don’t use a specific allergen or can cater for your allergen.
Under Locations we have listed some of the most popular locations on the website, so it is always useful to use the search functionality to see if you can find recommendations in other towns or areas. The content on the website is user generated and relies on our community to share their experiences so that our database can grow.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your Star Brands section and why it’s on your website.
A: When I was designing my website, I always knew that eating out wasn’t the only thing people would be interested in as, clearly, we don’t all spend our spare time going to restaurants!
I knew from day one that I wanted to work with brands in the space who help those affected by allergies through their products and services. It felt like a natural addition to the website, and very much a value-add section that would benefit our users.
Through the collaboration with our Star Brands and many other brands in the space, we have been able to offer our community the chance to win amazing prizes every month and get to know the people behind such fantastic companies.
Q: What is the core message you want to send through Allergy Companions?
A: Being the Mum of two small children with allergies, all I want is for them to grow up in a world where they can enjoy life and share the same experiences as their friends.
We often hear about how allergies or dietary restrictions can be life threatening or life limiting. This is true to a point.
However, I like to look at things from a positive perspective. My business and my website are there to help the allergy and coeliac community live a better life, through information available on the platform and through the work we do to influence the hospitality sector and educate the outside world so they can be more welcoming and understanding.
Inclusion is so important to me, and I want Allergy Companions to improve inclusion for those that often feel left out or feel that choices are limited for them.
Making a positive impact in this space is so important to me.
Thank you for sharing your story with us today and look forward to working together, and seeing your website grow.