The Modern Pantry
Exploring the far-reaching impact of food allergies
People with complex food allergies or other special dietary restrictions find food related activities daunting and potentially dangerous.
Food is embedded in our daily activities – from the occasional socializing with friends or celebrating a birthday to the necessary intake of nutrients to fuel our body and brain. It can provide us with great sensory pleasure or in the case of those with dietary restrictions, be the source of great stress and disdain. Their relationship with food consumes valuable time and energy, creates anxiety around unexpected exposure or unhealthy “cheating,” and isolates them from friends and family. A Memphis entrepreneur asked us to explore the world of these consumers and look for opportunities to create a safer and more enjoyable retail experience that could restore normalcy, choice, and fun to food.
The team conducted a series of in-depth, in-home interviews with food allergy sufferers, parents of allergic children, individuals with chronic, diet-related health conditions and people with specialty diets (e.g., paleo, vegan, low-carb). After capturing stories around their daily routines, struggles, and successes and aspirations, we toured their kitchens and pantries to take a closer look at their purchasing habits and food storage, preparation, and consumption behaviors. The tours were particularly helpful for observing workarounds that users had developed, as well as instances where food choices differed from what was previously stated. Participants were also asked to prioritize a number of food-related services and then sketch their ideal allergen-free retail, dining, and community cooking spaces. The interviews were paired with retail immersions to assess what specialty items, information, and services were available locally and in nearby cities and to map the shopping experience for customers with special dietary needs.
The team analyzed the research data and identified meaningful patterns around community, knowledge, normalcy, taste, cost, and level of effort. Normalcy was most prominent with parents going to superhuman lengths to find ways for their child with allergies to participate in ‘normal’ childhood rites of passage like pizza parties and sleepovers. Level of effort was significant because eating a specialized diet usually meant preparing meals from scratch and with higher cost ingredients. We anticipated those following certain lifestyle diets (e.g. Paleo) to indulge in ‘cheat meals,’ but were surprised to learn that some with serious medical conditions, such as celiac disease or non-life threatening allergies, were occasionally eating things that made them sick. Reasons ranged from unanticipated cross-contamination when eating out, to not having a suitable tasting replacement for a favorite food, or just wanting to feel normal. One mom struggled with her young son having more than 20 diagnosed food allergies and had to feed him things he was mildly allergic to in order to provide him with enough sustenance. She agonized over meals trying to prepare something that was appetizing to a kid but wouldn’t make him sick.
From the patterns and insights, the team assisted the client in building and refining a detailed business plan. We helped to identify potential partners in delivering key services. We also designed a product and recipe suggestion prototype for a willing family with severe and vast dietary restrictions. Feedback from the family and the test experience informed the final recommendations, especially the information gathering needs to support such a service.
The team translated a rich body of knowledge around food allergies and sensitivities into a concrete business plan. The research definitively concluded that there is customer need for a retail space catering to allergy sufferers and specialty diets, especially one with safe, healthy, and delicious on-the-go options. However, the financial modeling showed that the substantial investment necessary to start paired with the small operating margins would make the endeavor high-risk and very challenging to sustain. This knowledge along with the wide range of needs, restrictions, and safety concerns, led the team to recommend further prototyping to de-risk the venture and narrow in on the best curation of products and services.