As someone in the midst of gutting and redoing a kitchen, I’ve been very dependent on restaurants over the last six weeks. At least half of my dinners have been fully cooked by someone else—a cook in a restaurant—and brought home in a paper or plastic bag. In order to keep some variety, I’ve hit a range of different takeout spots, from national QSR chains and fast-casual brands to casual-dining spots. In my adventures with takeout (because it’s certainly been a rollercoaster of highs and lows), I’ve developed some of my own best practices for wrapping up to-go food that I’d suggest operators take into consideration.
1. Temperature barriers
We all know that a major struggle of takeout is keeping food at the right temperature. Operators experiment with different packaging to find one that keeps the heat. But what about keeping hot food hot and cold food cold in the same bag? Because sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to give the guest multiple bags; it’s a waste of branded bags and it’s a lot for them to carry.
A smart example: A recent order consisted of a cold sushi roll for myself and a hot wok-cooked entree for my husband. I stepped into the restaurant with keys and a phone in one hand, so I only had one hand to carry our meal back to the car. When I saw just one bag, I was worried the steam from the hot package would seep out and cook my raw food (because, no matter what, a little heat always escapes—otherwise food just gets soggy). I was pleasantly surprised when I unpacked the food at home to see a thick piece of cardboard between the two packages. It was a cheap way to keep the temperatures separate—and it worked.
2. Smart-shaped bags
It’s baffling that brands spend so much time and effort on finding the proper containers for food, but often they don’t consider the bag it’s wrapped up in. More specifically, they don’t consider how that bag will sit on a car seat or on the floor, where it often spends the whole ride back to a customer’s dining room. The key: flat bottoms. The large plastic bags that can hold a lot of food might be okay for grocery items, but when consumers are concerned with keeping their meals level while driving, bags without straight bottoms are prone to flying forward at a quick stop or concaving in when placed in a bucket seat. The result is food that’s been jostled or even ends up spilled on the car floor—not always the best representation of a brand’s meal.
3. Think about the reheat
Restaurant portions tend to be pretty big—it's something a lot of consumers are well aware of. In fact, many diners take advantage of that, ordering enough food for more than one meal. But a big driver behind takeout is the convenience factor. What isn't convenient: packaging that can't go in a microwave or toaster oven. Having to dirty a pan isn't a huge deal, but it adds an unwelcome step (especially for me, who was using a utility sink for dishes at the time). Plus, as more millennials and Gen Zers think beyond the food and about a restaurant's impact on the greater good, the cheaper option of polystyrene clamshells isn't the best reflection on a brand. And with polystyrene bans starting to come down, operators should consider what their next move might be.
4. Top gripe: The overstuff
Things restaurants staffers don’t know when stuffing a bag full of takeout: how far a person has to drive with their meal, and if there’s someone in the passenger seat to make sure the bag stays upright. Especially when there are open hot sides, such as fries, one of the first things most people do (after eating a fry, of course) is roll up the bag to seal in the heat and set it next to them.
However, on a recent visit to a national QSR chain, my bag was stuffed quite literally to the brim. Issue No. 1 was that I could not roll the top closed, because there was no spare room at the top. Issue No. 2 was that I was driving alone—I had to keep one hand on the bag at all times to make sure it didn’t topple. And it didn’t help that some heavier items were near the middle of the bag, so it wasn’t weighed down at the base. The result: All the sides on the top were cold, and driving home was a pain, not painting the best image of the takeout business from that spot.