As demand for grab-and-go soars, convenience store foodservice managers are looking more than ever for packaging to not only maintain product quality and consistency, but be environmentally friendly and serve as a marketing vehicle.
That’s a lot of responsibility to heap on stuff customers casually toss away.
“I don’t know that takeout packaging is changing all that much from where it’s been previously,” said John Burke, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) in Falls Church, Va. “We’ve said this many, many times in many venues: the continuing challenge for all takeout packaging, particularly that for prepared foods, is always to keep the hot things hot and the cold things cold. The emphasis is on thermal qualities, tight seals on the packaging. That’s not anything new; that challenge has been around for a while.”
What has changed, Burke pointed out, is that more and more venues are popping up where people are buying takeout food. It used to be that when you went to the grocery store, for example, you just bought groceries. Now consumers are taking away more than just food in takeout packages. They are leaving with a clear impression of a retailer’s identity.
The power of environmentally sustainable takeout packaging should not be taken lightly. Technomic Inc., the food industry research and consulting firm based in Chicago, reported that roughly one-third of consumers surveyed were willing to pay more for so-called green packaging.
As such, Dallas-based 7-Eleven Inc. redesigned its fresh-food packaging specifically in order to improve communication of its fresh and portable message with the new packaging. All the cardboard used is recycled. The revised containers feature a light-green label, a cleaner presentation, less verbiage and color and more of a focus on the product inside. The label carries every ingredient and highlights common allergens that may be included in the product like soy, wheat, peanuts and eggs.
The flip side of environmental concerns, however, is that c-store operators need to keep an eye on legislative initiatives. For example, Burke called California “one long, constant stream of bill introductions. Most of the time they’re focused on the plastics side of the industry because California is just mad about plastics.”
One recent proposal to come out of the Golden State would have mandated that all packaging be biodegradable or compostable. Within that same bill was a ban on plastic-coated paper, which Burke pointed out, not only gets into polyethylene-coated paper, but would also involve the new biopolymers because that’s a form of plastic.
“The bottom line is, had that bill passed, you would go up to your drive-through window in California, stick your right hand out and say, ‘put the French fries there, put the hamburger in the left hand.’ Then you would have driven away using your elbows,” Burke said. “These initiatives are not productive and drive up operating costs.”
Packaging and Image
Lynn Dyer, a food consultant specializing in packaging issues, said a growing number of localities have reduced the options for operators by banning single-use products. “While polystyrene foam was the initial target, more recent ban proposals broadened the scope to include not only plastic, but also coated paper foodservice packaging—the majority of the industry,” she said.
Other moves, like mandating the use of paper foodservice packaging made from 100% post-consumer waste, are ill-conceived since these products do not even exist. “Other mandates for compostable or recyclable products are also of concern, since often these are made without consideration whether an infrastructure exists to support the mandate,” Dyer said.
Causing “grave concern” for FPI, is the government’s mandating the use of reusable packaging in foodservice operations. “This has serious food safety implications,” according to Dyer, “ones that legislators may not have considered.”
The group believes legislators should not dictate which single-use foodservice packaging products are available to operators, but rather leave that to retailers to decide.
Daniel Vest, foodservice manager for Quarles Petroleum Inc. in Fredericksburg, Va., which operates more than 20 Quarles Food Stores, said his company likes to stick with basics, opting for simple foil wrap for its line of hot sandwiches and hot dogs. “We do most everything in foil. It keeps our food warm, and to temperature,” he said. “It’s also one of the most cost-effective solutions available.”
Perhaps more than anything, choosing the right takeout packaging has to do with portraying your image, said Mike Lawshe, president, CEO and principal of Paragon Solutions, a design firm and consultant group in Fort Worth, Texas that specializes in helping convenience stores portray an attractive retail image.
“There has been a bunch of new, very good grab-and-go packaging coming out in the last few years, things that make it very easy to create either a commissary-style or back of the house preparation to present fresh foods. And that’s a good thing.”
What’s not so good, Lawshe continued, is that a lot of people are forgetting to have the sizzle with the steak. “Takeout packaging is an opportunity to portray brand and consistency in brand, and to create a name, a logo or both to convey them. Brand image and consistency start with the packaging and then go to the presentation,” he said. “Then it goes out to point of sale, then out to the windows and the gas islands. But it’s got to be consistent. It’s not an easy thing, and a lot of people forget to do that.”
When operators forget that step, tremendous opportunities are wasted. Takeout food that comes in generic-looking packaging is inevitably perceived by consumers as generic, when actually the quality of it may be much superior.
When retailers invest the effort to create a commissary-style or a fresh approach, they need to take the time and energy—and the money, quite frankly—to complete it,” Lawshe said.
Three of the c-store operators with which Paragon is currently working illustrate how to carry branding through to packaging:
• U-Gas in St. Louis has created a separate foodservice program and branded it Gigi’s. The logo is reflected throughout the store all the way down to the packaging for grab-and-go items. The packaging includes a combination of several solutions, everything from clamshell to wrap. The company spent a lot of time on brand identity and purveying its fresh approach, Lawshe said.
• At Hutchinson Oil Co. in Elk City, Okla., operator of Hutch’s Convenience Stores, the company created a new brand called Roscoe’s to personalize its offering. Roscoe is the owner’s grandfather, so it incorporated an old photograph with Roscoe and the Roscoe’s logo. “It’s got kind of a good ol’ country feel, and that’s carried through from the menu boards all the way through to the packaging. It’s a matter of how you portray that image,” Lawshe said.
• Oasis Stop N Go in Twin Falls, Idaho, is remaking its coffee identity. It isn’t takeout, but it’s paving the way for expansion into takeout foods. “They’re probably earlier in the process than the other two as far as the packaging, but they’re doing a good job on the execution of the logo, which will be the backbone of the burgeoning fresh food program,” Lawshe said.
All of these operators have one thing in common, he noted. “They realize that the generic approach was totally inadequate. They began by asking the question, ‘how do we take it to the next level?’ This is important because it shows they are investing the time to necessary to do it right,” Lawshe said. “They recognize that there is no quick fix and that the way to have a positive impact is to do your homework.” CSD