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Should to-go boxes be included in catering orders?

reusable takeout containers
Photograph: Shutterstock

Question:

I recently dropped off a catering order and the customer was upset that I didn’t include takeout containers for leftovers. I wanted to leave things in a good place and get repeat business, so I went back to the restaurant to get them. But is this really a standard offering like plates and forks? Can I charge for it? I left almost a whole sleeve, and they’re expensive.

– Restaurant owner, Philadelphia

Answer:

As more guests become conscious of food waste, there is increased focus not only on what goes on your menu with regard to sustainability but also what happens after the event. Large venues like convention centers, hotels, and banquet halls are increasingly including their food recovery/donation programs as part of their sales presentation. Catering customers and event guests want to know that they are not contributing to good food going to waste, especially when there is still widespread hunger and food insecurity. 

Even for smaller venues like a business meeting sandwich tray drop-off, clients are wanting to make sure that the food you so beautifully put together feeds people and not the dumpster. 

As usual, the problem here is one of expectations: Your customer’s expectation of what is included in a catering order differed from yours. That mismatch, however, is indicative of a larger shift in customer values. Not all are expensive for an operator. I recently attended an event where the host was upset that the caterer provided bottled water—it was against the sustainable ethos of the organization. The caterer happily removed the bottles, and replaced them with carafes of ice water, saving costs in the process.

In this case, I think the changing expectations surrounding to-go containers and waste management are something we’ll see more and more. I think it will bring the added benefit of having catering patrons feel good about your offerings and their impact on the world. It’s also a good opportunity for branding by providing quality branded to-go containers and bags. Be sure to give some thought to the sustainability of the materials here too. For regular accounts, you might even try something reusable. 

 As to whether you should charge, I would not recommend a line-item type charge. I think it would be off-putting for clients and encourages them to skip it. I would, however, recommend including to-go containers as an option for all events when people place their order, or as a standard offering with other service items, folding the costs into your pricing if you feel the market allows.

More on to-go containers here

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