As we have come to rely on takeout restaurant food over dine-in meals in recent months, the safety of food packaging has been put under a magnifying glass. Beyond the packaging’s ability to keep food at the proper temperature and protect it from tampering, it must also be made from materials that don’t have an adverse impact on the safety of the food it carries. Recently, several states including Washington, Maine and New York have introduced bans on packaging containing PFAS chemicals, which are commonly found in food packaging and are potentially carcinogenic. As packaging improves to help operators manage increases in off-premise dining, consider the safety of its ingredients – along with its ability to keep a meal warm and secure en route to a customer.
The sharp rise in off-premise dining likely means that most, if not all, of your menu is being eaten a good 30 minutes after it’s prepared. How well does it survive the journey from chef to customer? Just as you have likely had to give your business an update to operate effectively right now, your off-premise packaging may need some fine-tuning to make sure it keeps hot foods hot, cold foods cold, and protects food safety overall. Companies are coming to market with new packaging to suit the times – and some operators (like Garry Kanfer of Kissaki Omakase in New York) are even designing their own solutions. If you’re looking for improved methods of packaging foods and protecting them during transport, you’re apt to find plenty of models that may help.
Turkey time is coming quickly. Whether you’re planning to pack up full meals to be heated and eaten off-premise, provide Thanksgiving meal kits for home cooks, or serve Thanksgiving meals on site (and obviously boxing up guests’ must-have leftovers), you need to ensure your food is both transported securely at the proper temperatures and consumed in a way that minimizes the risk for foodborne illness. It’s easy for not only turkey but also side dishes to be left out for too long or cooked inadequately, making it easier for bacteria to multiply. Providing your guests with detailed instructions for heating, refrigerating and reheating, and make sure you have well-insulated packaging that will ensure your dishes can be transported at safe temperatures.
Let’s face it: Even if you keep your coolers and cooking equipment sparkling clean, a sloppy handoff of food to a customer can negate any special care you’re taking behind the scenes. Make sure your updated health and safety procedures carry through to when you pass food to customers who are collecting takeout or receiving deliveries. For takeout orders, Statefoodsafety.com advises taking extra care to wash hands regularly, keep food preparation areas clean, avoid cross-contamination of items and, if needed, keep food awaiting pickup in either hot- or cold-storage equipment until a customer collects it. Delivery drivers should arrive in a clean vehicle, have a means of cleaning their hands regularly, avoid touching potentially contaminated surfaces before touching food or food containers, and have storage that keeps foods at the proper temperature at delivery.
A recent survey of 700 restaurant guests by the restaurant tech company Toast found that restaurant takeout has been more popular than delivery in recent months – and cleanliness is a concern for more people ordering delivery than it is for those ordering takeout. Particularly if you use a third-party delivery provider, customers must not only trust your restaurant staff to prepare and package your food safely but trust the safety of delivery drivers and their vehicles. Promoting your staff’s updated safety procedures – right down to the care your team takes in packaging each order and the minimal handoffs between the chef and customer – could be yet another tactic to entice customers to come to you to collect their order instead of opting for the convenience of delivery.
If you’re new to delivery or are using existing staff to help accommodate deliveries right now, make sure your delivery protocol keeps your staff, customers and food safe. Statefoodsafety.com advises you take some steps to safeguard your practices. First, make sure the delivery vehicle is kept clean and won’t attract pests. Package food securely and keep raw or allergenic foods separate. Use coolers or thermal blankets to keep food at proper temperatures en route. Finally, maintain social distancing when dropping off food to not only protect safety but to demonstrate your commitment to it.
If you’re getting more takeout business right now, is your take-out packaging up to the task? Having the right packaging will help you not only ensure your food arrives in good order, but it also enables you to broaden (or at least not limit) the variety of items you feel comfortable including on your off-premise menu. Safety-seal and clearly label items so customers who are gathering in groups can easily identify their meal in the bag without opening each item first. Finally, at a time when your customers are likely to be ordering more takeout but there has been a decline in the use of reusable cups and containers due to safety requirements, consider the environmental impact of your packaging and lean toward easily recyclable materials.
If takeout meals, meal kits or refrigerated meals to be prepared at home represent a larger percentage of your business right now – or you suspect they will in the future – make sure your packaging and heating instructions have kept up with the changes. Prepare clear cooking and reheating instructions and label your packaging accordingly (and don’t forget to list common allergens). If food can be refrigerated or frozen, include consume-by dates too.
Amid increasing calls for people to stay home right now, restaurants have to make it clear to customers that they provide safe takeout and/or delivery – and with far fewer interactions than are common at grocery stores. First take stock of how you are keeping your operation and employees safe at the moment, including wearing gloves and masks, disinfecting your POS terminals between customers, offering curbside pickup and taking care to keep your delivery packaging free from contaminants. Transition to accepting only mobile/card payment and if you have an app, add a contactless option that allows pre-payment and enables customers to provide directions for a contactless drop-off. Then make your new protocol clear on your website and social media accounts. Consider posting a short video that takes viewers through the process of getting a takeout or delivery order from you right now. When people are deciding if and where to order restaurant food, it can make a difference.
Compostable packaging for take-out food is on the rise – but what about the packaging that comes into your restaurant from suppliers? In the coming months, packaging technology companies will be generating more compostable alternatives to the plastic film and pouches that are used to package meat, along with other proteins and prepared foods. Fast Company reports that one startup called Primitives is fine-tuning smart compostable packaging that can respond to its environment and detect safety problems. It could mean that in the not-too-distant future, operators won’t have to look to “sell by” or “use by” dates on packaging but can instead note that if a food’s packaging or a label on the packaging has changed color, it may have been tampered with or reached a temperature that has made the food unsafe to consume.