no means noThe foodies are out to kill me. Seriously.

As a public speaker, I often travel and have to eat out. Many people don’t realize that I have a cluster of food allergies and carry an epinephrine injector with me. And therein lies a tale of where many small businesses succeed or fail.

You see, dining out is a microcosm of nearly any small business’ competitive landscape. You have large chain restaurants, small mom-and-pop operations, and everything in between. And wherever you are on the food chain (pun intended), if you run one of these restaurants, you probably bet your success on your food and your profit margins.

My expectations as a customer, however, are quite different: in order, they are (a) not dropping dead, and (b) having a good meal. With (a) ranking somewhere ahead of (b). And small, upscale restaurants often score so poorly in the not-dropping-dead department that they frankly tarnish the entire market segment for me. Here are some examples:

– A client in a major city plans to take me to an “award-winning bistro.” I email them ahead of time and explain my food allergies. No problem, they reply. When we arrive, a waiter loudly announces to our entire party “Hey, who’s the guy with the food allergies?” And proceeds to tell me that since everything is made in advance, I basically can’t have anything on the menu at all. I go hungry that night after having a dry piece of meat and unadorned lettuce leaves for dinner.

– Other times people simply don’t care. Like the Caribbean tour guide who “surprised” us with a sticky peanut snack, wolfed it down himself after I told him I was allergic, would not wash his hands, and spent the rest of the tour trying to shake my hand, grab my wife’s camera to take pictures, etcetera. All while I’m halfway around the world about to speak to 200 people.

– Worst of all are the life-is-cheap types who tell me I’m fine, and then no I’m not. Like the waitress who angrily refused to check with the kitchen to see if the specks in my salad dressing were celery seeds, ironically one of my worst allergies. “Like I told you before, they’re crumbs from the croutons!” she practically shouted. Put some in my napkin and checked them under a magnifying glass later – nope, seeds. Again, at one of these finest-restaurant-in-town type places.

So what’s the lesson for you? Simple: Success lies in how you take care of the exceptions. Especially when you have larger competitors. Ironically, I generally have good experiences with my food allergies at major chain restaurants, because they know better than to get sued over stupidity.

So here is my success tip for this month: visit the website, and learn about small restaurants who take good care of their food-allergic customers. Guess what? Often they are also really, really successful. Learn to tend to the special needs your customers bring in, and watch your reputation and market share grow. Bon appetit!