With foodservice sales booming and more retailers making the leap to fresh foods, operators are turning their attention to take-out packaging and finding that, with all the options and considerations, choosing the proper packaging can be as tricky as selecting the foodservice program itself.
“There are so many things to think about when you’re looking at packaging that you don’t think about when you unwrap and eat a sandwich,” said Scott Zaremba, owner of Zarco 66 Earth Friendly Fuels, which operates eight stores in Kansas.
Zaremba is in the process of rolling out a foodservice portfolio to all eight of his convenience stores, and with that he’s been weighing packaging options. “With packaging items we’re just in a steep learning curve understanding what our consumer wants right now and learning what we need to give on-the-go consumers so they can handle takeout lunches easily without a mess,” Zaremba said.
This due diligence process is a time-consuming, but necessary process that should be taken seriously.
“A lot of c-stores don’t quite know what they’re doing yet with packaging. They haven’t really been dealing with food sales all along, so they are just getting into it, and they aren’t yet aware of the various issues out there and options they have,” said Lynn Dyer, vice president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI).
As for trends in foodservice packaging, FPI is seeing more sophisticated casings with more colors, styles and better graphics.
“People are really looking at packaging as a walking billboard, so instead of a plain cup, they’re putting some promotion of that company on the cups or on other types of packaging,” Dyer said. “Retailers are really thinking about how the customer is using the packaging, what the consumer is going to be doing with it.”
One packaging aspect Zaremba has been closely monitoring is food safety. He has been testing some plastic containers that contain a safety seal for his proprietary food items.
“They have a safety seal instead of just having a label across the opening, which I really like because with some items you kind of lose control once you put them in a grab-and-go cooler,” Zaremba said. “We thought it would be a wise idea to have that safety seal on it just like milk or any other product that somebody could tamper with, so once it’s placed out on the island, nobody can open it and reseal it.”
With food safety issues atop retailers’ concerns when serving fresh foods, the packaging itself needs to serve as another layer of protection from potential contamination. “When you place packaging out on the sales floor you need to be 100% sure that nobody can sabotage your operations by opening a container and doing something to the contents without your knowledge,” Zaremba said.
When it comes to food safety, as well as nutrition, more legislation is popping up requiring operators to include nutrition information or ingredient lists on packaging. Some companies also are looking at putting reheating instructions on the label as well, which all needs to be taken into consideration when choosing packaging and even graphics, Dyer noted.
These days the demand for sustainability is going full force, and it’s affecting foodservice packaging decisions in a major way.
Alternative materials, such as biopolymers or bioplastics, starches and non-tree cellulose (such as sugarcane and bamboo products) are entering the market and touting compostable benefits.
“We’re starting to see more customers concerned with how much foodservice packaging is going into the landfill,” Dyer said. “Some of these new products whether recyclable or compostable are exciting, but the operator or customer needs to make sure they’re actually recycling those products. People might opt to use a compostable package, but if there’s no composting facility in that location then it’s still going to go in the landfill.”
Joe Iorillo, analyst with Freedonia Group Inc., a Cleveland, Ohio-based market research firm agreed. He has noticed a trend toward more polylactic acid (PLA) corn-based products being used to make bottles, trays and cups for use in foodservice. “Even though PLA is biodegradable, it can only biodegrade in commercial composting facilities so, unfortunately, even if a company tries to promote its environmental awareness by using PLA cups, trays, etc., they only get the environmental benefit if they make sure it ends up in a composting facility. Most of the time people just throw it in the regular trash bin and it ends up in a landfill where it behaves like other plastics,” he said.
Dyer encourages retailers to go the extra step in determining where in their town they can properly recycle these products—if applicable—and then provide the bins for customers to recycle the materials.
In an effort to cut down on waste entirely, some manufacturing companies are also using less plastic, for example, in the case of water bottles. Overall, Iorillo said there is a current shift away from rigid packaging to flexible packaging—in other words away from cans, boxes, plastic containers and glass containers and toward packaging in bags and pouches because they are both less expensive to ship as opposed to heavy cans, and also occupy less space in a landfill.
Iorillo also noted a backlash against paper coffee cups has been brewing, due to the polyethylene coating on the inside, which makes the cup watertight yet unable to be recycled.
“Manufacturers are therefore bringing back wax coatings instead of plastic coatings, and the next step is combining some of those traditional coatings with non-plastic materials,” Dyer added.
Starbucks also set out to find a solution, and is now working in New York City and Chicago to recycle its cups and ship them to nearby recovery pumping mills that can recycle them effectively.
In another step toward going green, Starbucks is encouraging customers to bring in their own mugs in the name of sustainability. “But what happens if that consumer takes that mug and leaves the coffee in the mug all day long and some bacteria starts to grow,” Dyer said. “Then imagine they take it into the store for a refill and whatever bacteria is in the mug gets onto the coffee machine and subsequently put onto the next mug behind it?” Such concerns, she noted, have some companies reluctant to follow suit.
For a very long time a lot of foodservice containers were made from polystyrene and now that trend is shifting more toward PET, and also polypropylene, which can be used in a microwave, according to Dyer.
Microwave packaging is growing in popularity, and can be especially useful for convenience stores. “Many c-stores have microwave ovens to heat products, and so theirs is a demand for plastic containers that can withstand microwave use,” Iorillo said.
Dyer added, “If c-stores are looking at products that can be warmed, they might want to look at polypropylene products.”
As the economy turns around and disposable income levels rise, customers are expected to start spending more money on food away from home, enabling foodservice establishments to buy more packaging products. As a result, Freedonia Group predicted the U.S. demand for foodservice packaging will climb 2.5% per year to $7.9 billion in 2014. Through 2014, foodservice packaging used in baked goods is expected to be the fastest growing as the popularity of coffee shops and bakeries are expected to grow.
Dyer said it’s important to remember trends are always shifting depending on interests and needs. For retailers interested in keeping up with packaging news, FPI has a free affiliate membership for foodservice operators. Retailers can join by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.