In a matter of days this past March, operators had to switch to takeout and delivery exclusively to bring in any revenue from foodservice sales. While not every restaurateur or outlet opted for that route, the number that did kept rising as the pandemic dragged on.
But the dramatic increase in demand was not the only complication for packaging suppliers, says Natha Dempsey, President of the Food Packaging Institute (FPI), a trade association for the industry. At the start of the U.S. quarantine, Europe and Asia were already shut down for weeks, and problems developed over importing materials for containers and disposables. Further delays were caused by reduced labor overseas and transportation snags.
Manufacturers in the states were not closing production facilities, but there were many pinch points, says Dempsey. “Along with disruptions in transportation and shipping, with offices and stores like Target closed, there was very little recycling of paper and corrugated cardboard,” she says. The packaging industry relies on these materials to make containers and boxes.
Several months later, supply has pretty much caught up with demand but other challenges have emerged. Takeout and delivery were already on the rise before the coronavirus crisis, with priorities such as compostable packaging and zero waste gaining ground. But now, performance and price seem to be taking precedence for cash-strapped operators.
“Pre-pandemic, there was a huge challenge around compliance with state and municipality packaging requirements, especially around the ban on plastic bags, plastic straws and styrofoam,” says Jeff Clark, director of Sustainability and Nutrition for the National Restaurant Association. “Plus, not every operation had the infrastructure to handle compostables and going that route is more expensive.”
Over the last months, as the country dealt with COVID-19 restrictions, many local and state ordinances were overlooked or relaxed a bit, he says. Sustainability is still a priority for a number of restaurant operators but survival today hinges on packaging safety, performance and cost.
Sarah Stegner, chef-owner of Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, Ill., runs a sustainable, waste-conscious kitchen and offers a locally-sourced menu, but in her pivot to carryout meals and meal kits during the pandemic, she has had to turn to single-use plastics. “I feel terrible about all the disposables and plastic containers I’m using right now, but that’s what is available,” she says.
While a good percentage of single-use plastics are recyclable, some of these efforts have temporarily gone by the wayside—with both consumers and sanitation companies.
But cost is also a major factor during these challenging times. Kelley Glogovac, manager of PJ & Company Restaurant and Saloon in Reno, Nev., said her operation added a 10% upcharge for packaging supply costs. “No one has even raised an eyebrow about it,” she shared on the Restaurant Business’ Coronavirus in the Food and Beverage Industry Facebook page.
The Association is currently developing a single-use packaging review toolkit that will launch in the fall. Included will be an extensive food-safety component; with tamper-proof packaging a top priority now. “We want to help operators make the right decisions regarding sustainability, efficiency and profitability,” says Clark.
“Tamperproof packaging is a very big trend going forward,” says FPI’s Dempsey, “but performance is everything. The industry is putting more innovation around performance to get food as close to restaurant quality as possible.” Dempsey is optimistic that lots of packaging innovation will come of COVID-19 to meet the growing demand, she says.