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Should restaurants allow guests to bring their own takeout containers?

reusable takeout container
Photograph: Shutterstock

Question:

Lately, guests have taken to coming in with their own takeout containers or reusing previous ones in an effort to be greener. They look clean (mostly), but I’m not convinced they are. One posted to social media that we encourage this practice (not really true) and that it’s “a great way to reduce the never-ending stream of plastic containers going into recycling.” Is this allowed?

– Restaurateur, Pennsylvania

Answer:

Done properly, guests bringing reusable containers to your restaurant for takeout can be a win-win: you save money on disposables, guests feel better about your green initiatives, and both of you are working together to reduce disposables in the waste stream. Great! A number of municipalities and large foodservice operators are also focused on instituting reusable container programs. 

You are also right to give it a second thought before implementing a reusable container program. As a restaurateur, you are ultimately responsible for ensuring the safety and sanitation of everything in your kitchen. When you buy a case of disposable takeout containers from a reputable supplier, you are committing—and so is your supplier—to using a high-quality product. If you opened the case and found things not to your standard, you could send it back. Not so with guests’ own containers.

You also need to manage public perception here. There have been a few instances of negative consumer reactions, especially in coffee shops, from guests whose requests to use their own reusable containers are denied, with restaurant employees citing health regulations or company policies.

My advice is to leverage your guests’ interest in greener practices in two ways:
1.    If you allow them to bring their own containers, restrict their use to the front-of-house, equivalent to packaging leftovers. That way you are not inviting containers into your kitchen that aren’t designed for reuse or aren’t being properly cleaned and sanitized.
2.    Buy—and sell—reusable takeout containers that are designed for reuse for those guests who want them. They can be properly cleaned and sanitized before being refilled, include your branding, and are ideally sized for your operation. Use these as an upcharge, incentive for loyal guests, and a way to discourage what sounds like a plastic container free-for-all.

More on the movement to reduce takeout waste here

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