All Wrapped Up
Whether it’s used for carryout containers or a solution for leftovers, packaging is a vital commodity in restaurants, answering diners’ call for convenience, protecting food and communicating brand image. Increasingly, the effect on the environment also is a factor.
Doggie bags and take-out containers are nearly ubiquitous fixtures in restaurants. Packaging very much reflects how Americans integrate the restaurant industry into their lifestyles. Portion sizes, often more than enough for just one meal, are stashed into containers with the assumption that they will be eaten some point down the road. Even if the food is tossed after a few days in the fridge, doggie bags somehow seem to ease guilt over food waste. And take-out, which represents a substantial percentage of total meals thanks to the quick-service sector, continues to gain vigor as the convenience widely appreciated by consumers. In a survey conducted last year, the National Restaurant Association reported that 40% of surveyed diners said there was not enough take-out food in their lives.
“People are more concerned about the contents.
If someone gets home and their sandwich is cold, they’re not going to forgive it because the packaging was eco-friendly.”
– Josh Rutherford, 4 Star Restaurant Group
Mixed in with all of this ease and convenience is a lot of packaging, 3.2 million tons in fact, up 700% in 30 years, according to the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association. Less than 1% of it was actually recycled, the GRA adds, a statistic that leaves much room for improvement.
In an ideal world, Michael Oshman, GRA founder and CEO, says that there would be no packaging. Although he is quick to acknowledge that’s never going to happen. Regardless, there are ways for all segments of the industry to significantly decrease the volume of consumer food packaging that ends up in landfill while still maintaining the integrity of the food — temperature, structure and texture.
“Since there has to be packaging, the question for all operators becomes ‘what kind is best?’", Oshman says. To best answer that, he suggests thinking about where the customer most likely takes the packaging. If, as they often do in fast-casual, they consume it on premise, food can be presented with minimal wrapping, perhaps a reusable plastic basket or tray with disposable liner. This, Oshman says, trumps boxes and containers that often envelop foods that make only a short trip from counter to table. In corporate dining where diners stay in the facility but eat at their desks, a composting program can be implemented and compostable food packaging used. Leftover food also is compostable so nothing needs to be separated — everything can be chucked in the same place, a program that Oshman says is in place at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash.
The Vast Wasteland
Those are, perhaps, the best-case scenarios. Beyond that, millions of carryout meals end up in homes, offices or public places where consumers direct the packaging disposal. That, Oshman says, is where the real challenge lies. “Many types of paper, cardboard and plastic packaging that the industry has access to are relatively benign. Some are made from 100% recycled materials, or with post-consumer waste,” he notes.
Josh Rutherford, a founding partner of the Chicago-based 4 Star Restaurant Group, says that the main drivers in their packaging choices have changed over the past several years. “It used to be that we didn’t have many requests for meals to go. Then, cost and ease of use led our purchasing,” he says. Now, with the group’s six restaurants all handling more take-out meals, functionality jumped to the fore. “We started to look at classier, more heat-retentive solutions. It took a lot of trials to find the right ones,” he says. “At this point, we look at packaging that is eco-friendly and is right for the food.” Rutherford gives props to the industry’s suppliers. “A lot of packaging companies recognize a need before we do. We get the solution before there’s a problem.”
What’s right at 4 Star’s Smoke Daddy barbecue restaurant doesn’t work for their other upscale casual concepts. “We tried different things at Smoke Daddy but got so many complaints. For ribs, you really need Styrofoam,” Rutherford says, adding that for most guests, food quality ultimately trumps all. “People are more concerned about the contents. If someone gets home and their sandwich is cold, they’re not going to forgive it because the packaging was eco-friendly. It’s the last thing they’ll consider.”
Checking In, Taking Out
At first glance, hotel properties may not appear to have a big need for carryout packaging but Sean Curry, executive chef at the Hilton Chicago Oak Brook Hills Resort and Conference Center, says changes are afoot. “You’re starting to see that some hotels are closing the room service department. Instead, they offer a market or café in the lobby area where guests can pick up meals to take back to their rooms,” he says, adding that many guests prefer such options to calling and waiting for the wheeled-in meal to arrive from room service.
From catering and boxed golf lunches to doggie bags and carry-out meals, the many facets of a hotel’s foodservice department make packaging an important decision. “You want to have the right one,” Curry says. “Not something inferior.”
He admits to approaching the topic with two values that can at times sound contradictory. “I’m very farm to table with my ideals so we want to have compostable and biodegradable packaging that fits that model. And we also have to meet customer expectations for how well the packaging suits the food. Some of the biodegradable lines don’t hold hot food all that well and if they do there’s often a catch — they cost a lot more,” Curry says, adding that he is ever-mindful of how important it is to find the right balance.
“I’m not a crusader but I do what I can. People will remember the good things you do and when they think about coming back, it may be enough to tip them over the edge in a good way.”