While COVID-19 has expedited a great number of advances for the restaurant industry, it has also forced a notable regression for many operators with regard to packaging. Pre-pandemic, reusable containers and recyclable or compostable packaging had been a key area of focus for restaurants. But concerns about safety, efficiency and cost in the past year have made many operators scale back on those efforts and even revert to the use of plastics and Styrofoam to accommodate off-premise orders. As we emerge from the pandemic, your packaging should be ready to carry some extra weight: It should minimize waste, demonstrate your brand values, steer customer behavior and uphold pandemic-era safety and sanitation precautions at a time when off-premise dining continues to comprise an outsize portion of overall restaurant sales. For example, as Nation’s Restaurant News reports, Just Salad has launched a “zero-waste” reusable bowl packaging option for customers who order online. (The reusable option had been offered for years but not for online orders.) Customers return their bowl to the store for sanitation and reuse. Not only does it save the business on the cost of disposable packaging, but it also elevates the brand’s environmental values: Many consumers want to support the environmentally friendly option when they order food online – if they have such an option and it also preserves safety. In a recent paper from McKinsey & Company about U.S. consumer attitudes towards sustainability in packaging, the company advised operators to keep three tenets in mind regarding packaging: Make sustainable packaging available and apparent to customers, adopt an experimental approach to options and communicate about them clearly, and also bear in mind COVID-19 protections for hygiene and food safety. Does your packaging meet those criteria?
If your restaurant has pivoted to mostly takeout service in recent months, you may long for the days when you were serving attractively plated meals. But since takeout is here to stay, can you find a better way to present your off-premise meals? Offering durable reusable containers may help you – and may also help ease your customers’ guilt about the mountain of takeout containers and utensils they have likely accumulated from their favorite restaurants this year. (The Washington Post recently reported the troubling statistic from National Geographic that the U.S. uses more than 36 billion disposable utensils annually – an amount which, if laid end to end, would circle the world 139 times.) Not only is serving food in reusable containers more eco-friendly and budget-friendly if used in the long term – it’s more appealing to customers than eating out of cardboard or from an unrecyclable plastic container that has to then be tossed in the garbage. It also provides an additional means for restaurants to demonstrate (and market) to customers that they are taking steps to minimize their impact on the environment. This Fast Company report mentions Dispatch Goods as one company that is offering a reusable container service that, for a small additional fee, allows customers to set their takeout containers outside in a reusable bag for pickup, cleaning and later reuse by the restaurant. Companies like this are becoming more common and cost-effective for restaurants. Could the model work for you?
One of the biggest restaurant industry stories – and challenges – of 2019 was about sustainability. Even brands that had taken the initiative to invest in compostable, eco-friendly packaging were surprised to learn that these materials were still ending up in landfills. Blue Bottle Coffee, which operates coffee cafés across the U.S. and parts of Asia, is one such business, and it is handling the problem in a way that’s worth watching if you’d like to improve your record (and story) when it comes to sustainability. Blue Bottle Coffee’s CEO, Bryan Meehan, recently announced that since discovering that too many of its 100 percent compostable, bioplastic cups and straws were ending up in landfills, the company created a policy that by the end of 2020, all of its U.S. cafés will be zero waste. (According to Zero Waste International Alliance’s definition, this means that at least 90 percent of the operation’s waste will be diverted from landfills.) The company is also testing out a program in the San Francisco Bay area to eliminate single-use cups – until now the company has gone through 12 million single-use cups annually in its U.S. cafés alone. Meehan also pushes a commitment to not only recycle but to reduce and reuse – and tells stories about his family’s efforts in these areas. He readily admits that it’s not an easy, inexpensive or convenient undertaking to make similar changes at Blue Bottle. He says on the company’s blog, “a commitment to reuse will wreak havoc on every aspect of our pilot cafe’s operations. We expect to lose some business.” But by taking an extreme stand and being open with consumers about its plans, the company also stands to increase its relevance – and win business in the process.
As waste management continues to be a top priority for restaurant operators, news headlines appear every day about new technologies that can give companies in the food supply chain a leg up. In recent weeks, edible coatings and stickers for produce, as well as sachets that can be packed in crates of fruit, have all made news for their potential to significantly prolong the shelf life of produce and other fresh foods. Your suppliers will no doubt be adopting such technologies in an effort to compete in the marketplace, but there are a number of steps you can take right now in your business to make sure you’re making best use of the fresh products you buy. As Restaurant Owner & Manager advises, follow the first in, first out rule by adding a use-by date to new products you receive and then placing them behind older products in storage. Store food in airtight containers to help protect the hygiene of your products and minimize the potential for cross-contamination. Keep meat on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. Ensure proper temperatures in both your refrigerator (40˚F or lower) and freezer (0˚F or lower) and have employees check those temperatures regularly. Finally, store food without overloading your storage areas and clean your shelving, equipment and storage units daily to prevent the buildup of contamination.
The single-use plastic toys that have long been associated with children’s meals at brands including Burger King and McDonald’s could soon be part of restaurant history. As the New York Times reported recently, Burger King has pledged to eliminate all non-biodegradable toys in its restaurants worldwide by 2025, and efforts are already underway in Britain to collect old toys from customers, then melt and recycle them into playground equipment and tray tables. While McDonald’s hasn’t gone that far as yet, it has scaled back its distribution of plastic toys in markets beyond the U.S. and has also launched an effort to reduce the impact of its toys. When you look at your brand, are there areas where you could be more environmentally friendly – with both your children’s meal giveaways and beyond? J. Ottman Consulting, an environmentally focused marketing firm, runs a community website called WeHateToWaste.com, where consumers can weigh in on how restaurants can adjust their practices to minimize waste and enhance their brand as it relates to the environment. For one, consumers see oversized portions as a waste and appreciate flexible (or shareable) portion choices and prices, which can also help broaden the appeal of a dish to seniors or other guests who are watching their diets or aren’t looking for large servings. Next, rethink any all-you-can-eat branding, which makes waste inevitable. If and when guests ask to take food home, make it easy for them by offering eco-friendly packaging that also includes instructions for reheating leftovers and keeping them fresh – or incentivize those who take the initiative to bring their own to-go containers. Your efforts may play a role in their decision to choose your restaurant over another.
Food packaging technology is evolving so fast that it’s making plastic cutlery seem almost quaint. A startup called Planeteer LLC, for example, has taken on the challenge of packaging waste and developed a variety of cutlery that isn’t merely compostable but also edible. The company has created a spoon that it promises will hold its shape for 25 minutes in hot soup and 50 minutes in a cold dessert, The Spoon reports. Planeteer cofounder Dinesh Tadepalli said it is vegan, all-natural, rich in protein and composts in days if not consumed. The company will be presenting its product at the Smart Kitchen Summit’s Future Food Competition in October.