For those suffering from food allergies, Janylle Radden may be their new best friend.
As a person with nut allergies, she is intimately familiar with the stress of eating out and being at the mercy of servers who may or may not know what constitutes an allergy. Her life changed when she was at a Las Vegas restaurant that provided an allergen menu and she knew that was an experience she wanted to share with others.
It led the entrepreneur to create a website and app called MenuMD that helps people with food allergies and dietary restrictions figure out what they can safely eat at a restaurant. Launched in cities in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Texas, this year she is bringing the app to Los Angeles, starting with Playa Vista.
Radden has had food allergies for as long as she can remember and has had many uncomfortable experiences while dining out.
“It can be really hard to know what you are eating,” Radden says. “Sometimes speaking to a hostess or somebody in a restaurant doesn’t always get there or they get busy. I don’t expect a server to remember their whole menu and the details of allergens.”
Then Radden had that fateful dinner at a Las Vegas restaurant. She mentioned her allergies and the server left the table and came back with a version of the menu that provided allergen information for every single menu item.
“It was basically a very explicit version of exactly what I can eat,” Radden says. “I’d never felt safer eating out in my life. I knew this came from the kitchen and it was a very calming experience. I felt like I could experiment and try different things I might not have known about.”
She knew she wanted to replicate that feeling and experience for others who are like her, to make it easier for them to eat out. She began working with restaurants and figuring out how to create a tool that would work well for dining customers. Thus, MenuMD was born: simpler and safer dining.
On the website, one can search by restaurant or by allergen. The allergens and dietary restriction information currently available are vegetarian, vegan, peanut-free, shellfish-free, tree-nut free, fish-free, gluten-free, milk-free, soy-free and egg-free.
It’s also helpful to restaurants that can provide an extra service to their guests and bring in new people who are looking for places they can safely dine. It provides answers for their guests, which contributes to smoother service during rush times when it might be difficult for the server to interrogate kitchen staff about the exact ingredients of each dish.
Radden points out that she’s not asking restaurants to give away their recipes. She’s just asking them to identify which meals are safe for their guests.
“Once you have the restaurants on board and you have them willing to offer the information—and again, we’re not offering any secret sauce or any detail at that level,” Radden says. “But the customer can feel a lot more comfortable knowing that this is, for lack of a better phrase, just the word of God. This is coming from the chef. This is very specific and they definitely know they’re not waiting for a game of telephone to come from the kitchen through this person and that person and then back to you. That’s been the motivation and how we’ve proceeded with those factors in mind.”
Shortly after Radden launched MenuMD, the pandemic hit and the restaurant industry was devastated. She had just started her business and everything was thrown into uncertainty. Restaurants didn’t know when they would be able to open or if they would survive closures.
One of the things they did very quickly was pivot to a free model. Whereas before she was charging restaurants a fee to participate, she adopted a temporary free option for restaurants to come on board once they were able to do takeout and offer other service options to customers. In fact, with takeout orders, she realized Menu MD’s service was more needed than ever.
“We knew that customers lose the interaction with a server or the interaction with somebody who actually worked in the restaurant and they still needed that information,” Radden says. “We just wanted to make sure we could still provide the service and somehow buffer the cost a bit. So we decided to temporarily go free and let restaurants still join.”
Since launching, she’s heard from many people who are relieved to have the service that she offers. She describes one friend who was panicked when she learned her son had several food allergies, wondering whether she’d ever be able to eat out again. MenuMD helped her to find restaurants where they felt safe and comfortable to eat at, something that gave the mother a huge relief.
Other people have told Radden that the menus gave them the freedom to try certain foods they’ve never been able to have before out of concern they weren’t safe. For example, a customer with a nut allergy had always avoided Thai food because they use so much peanut oil. When a Thai restaurant provides a menu explaining which dishes are nut free, it gives them the opportunity to try something new.
Meanwhile, restaurants have put the QR code for the website on their menus or on cards that they can give to guests who ask about allergies. The business is one that Radden is well-prepared for. Not only is she a person with allergies, but she’s worked many different roles in hospitality at hotels, bars and restaurants. She’s been a hostess, a server, a bartender, a manager and a concierge.
“I’ve gotten really familiar with how to address and anticipate guest needs, as well as having a little bit of an inside perspective on what makes restaurant venues and hotels function effectively,” Radden says. “I have some perspective on what’s important to them and how they work on the inside. I know things like having an efficient evening or running their shift well or turning the most amount of tables is a high priority. Coming from that perspective and having that background and being able to speak the language a little bit helps in this entrepreneurial venture.”
Playa Vista is the home that keeps beckoning to Radden. A native of Arizona, she and her family moved to Playa Vista from New York then back to Arizona. They continued to visit Playa Vista during the summers and are moving back again with her two young children.
“One of the things we really loved about it was that everything you needed was right there and it was still walkable,” Radden says. “It was a really great transition moving from New York where you’re on foot all the time. You’re getting all that fresh air.”
She says they stumbled upon Playa Vista by accident when they had a flight delay out of LAX for three hours. They walked around and decided then and there that it would be their new home.
“It just felt so good,” Radden says. “We lived here for several years, and it just felt like such a good community. It’s clean, it’s well maintained, there’s something for everybody. The restaurants are great. It really is the whole package.”
She can’t name a favorite Playa Vista restaurant, but there are many that she’s looking forward to visiting again when she returns including Ritrovo, Dan Modern Chinese and Loqui.
Radden is also looking forward to working directly with Playa Vista restaurants to get them on board with MenuMD. She’s bringing plenty of ideas for how to launch with fun events designed for people with allergies. She describes her vision as being grandiose and possibly hard to pull off, but she is eager to see her passion project take off in the home that she loves.
Radden wants her neighbors to know that there are options for them to dine out safely—that they can go to their favorite places and try something new. There’s a range of types of cuisine for foodies from American and Latin to Chinese, among others.
“I’d really like to open those options up for all of the residents and especially ones with kids,” Radden says. “Playa Vista is such a kid-friendly neighborhood and you do see food allergies more often in children than in adults. Just offering that peace of mind and allowing people to get the full Playa Vista experience will be really cool.”