In some respects, the National Restaurant Show could have easily been called the National Container Show for all the takeout packaging on display during the four-day event.
To be sure, a show that brings in tens of thousands of restaurant operators to a single location over a few days is bound to have plenty of displays of takeout packaging. Yet the companies showing at the exhibition offered a breadth of options and innovations never before seen. Packaging is made from more and different materials, and much of it was reusable.
All of that reflects the rapidly evolving packaging industry. Growing demand for takeout and delivery—and from a wider variety of restaurant concepts—has forced that business to adapt to offer more options. Evolving government regulations, notably bans or limits on single-use plastics, have also led to changes, as has demand from restaurants for more sustainable or even reusable options. Oh, and the pandemic and limits on the supply chain threw a big wrench into the works.
“There’s a huge explosion of solutions that weren’t there before COVID,” said Kevin Gorsuch, regional sales manager for the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Southern Champion Tray, a supplier of paperboard packaging to a broad range of restaurant companies.
Packaging was evolving before the pandemic, particularly as third-party delivery companies introduced the service to a broader array of concepts, including full-service restaurants that didn’t previously consider how to package their food offerings for a consumer that might not eat it until 20 minutes later. Government limits on foam were also forcing changes.
The pandemic made takeout a necessity, and suddenly, demand for containers soared. With takeout and delivery no longer an option for many restaurant companies, they had to source containers they could.
It also unleashed a host of innovations in the sector. A company that specialized in sauce-soaked pastas could not send their meals packing in the same kind of material as a chain that sells burgers and fries.
Some of this effort has also expanded to include beverages. Georgia Pacific, for instance, has developed a beverage sealer designed to better protect takeout cups from potential leaks. The GP Pro Automated Sealing Machine can fit on a countertop and is not much larger than a coffee maker. The result covers the cup in a film strong enough to hold the liquid so the beverage can be more easily transported for delivery.
Meanwhile, concern for the impact of these materials on the environment has also grown. Kim Cassan, VP of marketing for the packaging company Kari-Out, said that operators either want packaging that will biodegrade quickly, so it is made from paper, or not at all, so the customer can reuse the item. “At the higher-end restaurants they started to do micro-plastics,” she said. “They’re microwave safe, dishwasher safe.”
Her company sells a huge range of products, from foil-lined paper bags that have gained favor more recently with quick-service chains to microplastic containers designed to be kept and reused by customers.
Gorsuch noted that chains have been looking at both small containers that customers can walk around with and large containers for bigger orders customers can bring to their dinner table.
He added that a growing number of chains want their takeout packaging to feature brand names. “They’re trying to make it more of a marketing vehicle,” he said.
The level of innovation has brought in numerous companies into the space, many of them from around the world offering packaging made from a variety of materials.
Many of these are designed to be biodegradable or compostable, a major demand of restaurant chains that want to appear more environmentally friendly.
Yet some argue they didn’t go far enough. “Most of the compostable packaging, it ends up in the trash,” said Thomas Wright, the founder of a circular system of reusable takeout containers called Ozzi.
The Ozzi system is in place at numerous colleges and healthcare facilities, particularly senior living facilities, and Wright said demand doubled in 2020 and then doubled again in 2021. The system features reusable containers that customers return for them to be washed, sanitized and used again. When the containers have reached the end of their useful lives, they are ground up and converted into reusable flatware.
Reusable containers have yet to take full hold in the restaurant space, though a number of companies are experimenting with the concept, including Burger King, which has started testing a reusable packaging system in the U.K. The fast-casual salad chain Just Salad has reusable takeout packaging. The coffee giant Starbucks has vowed to get rid of its iconic paper cups in exchange for reusable cups by 2025.
Wright initially developed a system to clean reusable containers but found that there was a need for containers that could be put to work inside cafeterias and restaurants. He also believes the system will save money in the long run because operators won’t have to constantly buy single-use takeout containers. “Where do you save on costs?” he said. “Labor is up, packaging costs are up, food costs are up.”
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