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That's a Wrap: a Look at Foodservice Packaging

Packaging considerations gain more headspace today as off-premises solutions dominate discussions.

feature Sandwiches Labelled LGOn-premises and off-premises packaging at Hannah’s Bretzel is the same, which since late 2008 has been biodegradable.  It may only be two little words, but for many restaurant operators to-go dining can be a big challenge. And it all starts with packaging — from choosing containers that maintain the quality of the food inside to creating eye-catching designs that tell a brand’s story all while meeting customers’ increased awareness of sustainability. While to-go means different things to different types of operations, all can agree that now more than ever it represents an essential piece of the hospitality puzzle.

According to Datassential’s “PULSE” report, which surveys more than 1,000 operators in January/February each year, to-go packaging is top of mind. “We saw packaging become a lot more important than it was in 2021, when we were already seeing higher off-premises sales, jumping from 23% to 41% of operators selecting it as one of their top five factors when choosing where they source for their operation,” says Ann Golladay, Datassential associate director. “We also saw operators spending a larger percentage of their overall purchasing on packaging from 12% of purchases in 2021 to 13% in 2022.”

Back in 2005 when Chicago’s European-style fast-casual sandwich concept Hannah’s Bretzel opened its first location, to-go and delivery weren’t a concern. Upon opening a second location in 2007, founder Florian Pfahler noticed long lunch lines and decided to offer premade sandwiches … for a week. “I tried one of those sandwiches and it was okay, but it wasn’t as good as when it was freshly made,” he says. “By adopting a premade to-go system, we started playing with fire and stopped it right then and there, and we never went back.”

What Hannah’s did do in early 2017 was create a new ordering platform, and since then the company has had a to-go program that didn’t compromise on quality. “If a pickup order needs to be ready in 20 minutes, we make it 5 minutes before they show up,” Pfahler says. “We had to work a lot with the teams to make sure a day-of to-go order doesn’t impact the orders placed the day before.” Most of Hannah’s online orders come in via its own portal, but the chain also works with third-party delivery firms Uber Eats and DoorDash.

To further streamline the brand, Hannah’s uses the same packaging for to-go and dine-in orders. “Packaging needs to work so it enhances the presentation of the food and brand itself,” says Pfahler, who prefers white to black packaging. He also recommends that bowls and lids be transparent to allow the food to shine.

feature DSC04367For all of its to-go items, including newer family style taco kits, Burrito Beach has found that packaging components as deconstructed as possible helps maintain the integrity of the dish, including temperature and texture. In late 2008, Hannah’s converted all its packaging to 100% biodegradable. “We made that decision because our industry creates a lot of waste,” he says. “I love the idea of doing things differently and proving you can do it profitably and build brand equity and loyalty.”

The change wasn’t without its challenges, especially when it came to hot items. Hannah’s quickly discovered stacking two soups on top of each other could lead to issues with the bottom soup lid melting. Putting soups in separate bags was an easy fix.

“In the beginning, there weren’t that many options,” says Pfahler of sustainable to-go packaging. “But we worked with those options because we wanted to create the demand that would give the companies that produced them a reason to continue to do so. We alone didn’t do that, but the collective spirit was important.”

To further its commitment to the environment, Hannah’s bought an electric Mini Cooper for large deliveries and has partnered with a local company, Cut Cats Courier, that utilizes bikes for its deliveries. Hannah’s uses both transport modes from its store locations in downtown Chicago when making deliveries nearby.

Ensuring Food Delivers Well

True Food Kitchen (TFK), which opened its first restaurant in 2008 in Phoenix and now has some 42 locations in 17 states, is a relative latecomer to the to-go concept. Following the guidance of its founder, Andrew Weil, a well-known doctor of integrative medicine, True Food Kitchen’s philosophy has always been to make eating healthier easier. As of fall 2019 that now includes takeout.

“As COVID-19 hit at the beginning of 2020 and throughout 2021, we shifted from 20% all the way to 80% of our total sales were off-premises,” says Christine Ferris, director of marketing for True Food Kitchen. “Obviously, that effected our menu innovation. We had to make sure all items on our menu could travel well.”

feature Hannahs Bretzel March2022 4289Hannah’s Bretzel uses packaging that not only promotes food quality but also provides a platform for colorful presentation. Those numbers have shifted with the return of dining in — 70% to 30% dine-in to off-premises — but to-go remains a steady piece of sales for TFK. With a premium price point for its menu items, it’s especially important that TFK’s food delivers well, looks good and arrives at the right temperature so it tastes good, says Ferris.

As with other restaurant supplies, obtaining to-go packaging isn’t without its challenges. “The overall industry was in a precarious spot before everything turned sideways with COVID,” says Stephan Manning, director of purchasing at TFK. “With a whole slew of additional consumers, what was already a relatively scarce commodity quickly starts to deplete. We would start with one producer and then wipe them out, and then all of us would move to the next one.”

TFK has worked closely with its distribution partners, most of which are larger, enabling these companies to offer a wider range of products, which was a plus when to-go items were in short supply. “We were able to float that line a lot by being more flexible on the size of containers,” says Manning.

Currently, TFK is working with an Arizona-based company that designs, develops and manufactures plant-based fiber solutions. This will help TFK transition from the plastic washable reusable containers the chain had initially used into ones that more easily break down environmentally. While not biodegradable in the strictest sense, the containers are on the edge of that.

“We’ve seen the focus with sustainability shift toward products that are easier on the planet as a whole,” says Manning, who adds that the idea is to not continuously add more things that take longer to break down. “Similar to the food side,” he says, “we try to be on the leading edge of what is great, whether it’s for environment or your body, and sometimes it takes it a bit longer to be able to get there.”

In the initial stages, choosing packaging becomes a dance between the operator and supplier, says Manning. “We have vision of what we want it to look like — whether it’s the material or the color, branded or not branded — and then once we have that partner identified, it’s then getting them to start running all the samples.”

From there, the in-house testing process occurs on various levels, starting with how the packaging looks, followed by a water test — flipping upside down and seeing if any dripping occurs — microwaving and leaving it in the refrigerator for a few days.

feature IMG 0144Traditional retail packaging can play a critical role in shaping on-premises experiences, as is the case at Hannah’s Bretzel. After that initial kick of the tires concludes, the containers are sent to TFK restaurants. There the culinary teams will plate dishes in the to-go containers to ensure the packaging meets their standards. Next steps include delivering to the home office to duplicate what the guest delivery experience will be. Finally, TFK will conduct a limited test run. “If there’s a concern, we can take a look at that before we start rolling out nationally,” says Manning.

Since its debut in 1995, Chicago-based Burrito Beach, a Mexican quick-serve concept with seven locations, has continued to look at ways of updating and improving its to-go packaging and delivery process to ensure the quality of the food is maintained. Like at TFK, testing is part of that process.

“How we do this is we will make each product available on our menu, exactly how the customer would order it. We then wrap it up, put it in the to-go bag and put it to the side for 45 minutes,” says Jeff Winograd, Burrito Beach’s vice president. After the 45 minutes, the testers eat the food as if they were the customers. “We found this is the best way to experience exactly what the customer would experience if they were to order delivery or takeout.”

Shortly after the pandemic started, Burrito Beach introduced its Taco Meal Kits, which feed two to three people. The kits were a huge success during COVID-19, and that remains true even now. With the kits and with all its to-go items, Burrito Beach has found that wrapping and packaging ingredients separately meets the chain’s quality goals.

“We like to package our entrees as deconstructed as possible,” says Winograd. “We have found that this ensures the ingredients that need to stay hot will stay hot, and the sauces like salsa, sour cream and guacamole, don’t spill or ruin the composition of the entree before the customer has the chance to get home and eat it.”

For the last 10 to 12 years, Burrito Beach has used as much recyclable and reused packaging as possible. In fact, the chain eliminated Styrofoam containers some time ago.

Catering serves as another area of to-go dining that many restaurants continue to embrace more heartily than prior to the pandemic. Last October, TFK launched catering on its website for pickup and delivery. “We started with hardly any catering sales, and we are now a little over a million dollars in sales”, says Ferris. “It’s only around 1% to 2% of total sales, but in terms of off-premises dining, it’s sitting at around 5% to 7%. The goal is to grow that.” Currently, TFK is testing individual lunch box options, too.

While TFK launched its catering program with existing packaging, catering-specific pieces are in the works, including a catering box that will hold two full pans of food. Design for those new containers will include some light storytelling — “Calling out things that makes us delicious and listing of some of the options as well,” says Ferris — and brand standards, such as colors, font and logo.

At Hannah’s, the design of its catering packaging aims to meet a bigger goal. “Catering packaging needs to add value because it’s not in our store,” says Pfahler. Hannah’s prides itself on its interior design, which includes cozy banquettes, modern light fixtures and an open design that offers guests the opportunity to watch the signature breads being made. “When a customer comes into the store, the store does the additional value reach.”

When boxing catering orders, Hannah’s encourages customers to recycle those containers. For some boxed catering orders, lids are opened during the delivery process to allow the food to shine. Wrapped orders are packaged in a way that’s attractive and without blemishes.

“Packaging should always enhance the brand, add value and is designed and thought through properly,” says Pfahler. “There are so many packaging choices today that this isn’t a challenge.” 

AYA PASTRY: How Sweet It Is

feature Aya Sugoi overheadAs a high-end bakery, Aya Pastry strives to create packaging that is immediately recognizable and conveys the quality of the goods inside it. A unique pastry box comes with a tray that slides out for easy on-the-spot eating, as well as a handle that eliminates the need for a separate bag. Long before pastry chef Aya Fukai opened her Chicago bakery, Aya Pastry, which caters to both wholesale and retail customers, creating packaging was front and center. 

“It’s almost like Tetris,” says Fukai of the process of figuring out the various sizes of boxes and containers she would need. After teaching herself the necessary computer design program, Fukai got busy. A huge spreadsheet kept a record of all the combinations of baked goods customers could order.

“We are looking for packaging that’s always able to multitask, so we don’t end up with one thing for this item and another for that item,” she says. “We’re looking for the least amount of variants in our packaging to contain the most of our things.”

For Fukai, sustainability was always a concern, too. “Almost everything we have except for the sliced bread, which we put into plastic bags so air doesn’t make the bread go stale quicker, goes into a paper product that can be recycled,” she says. “Whether it be a shopping bag or a cake box or a pastry box, they’re all paper products.”

Paper also has other benefits beyond sustainability. Because it can be folded it saves on space. The downside? “Somebody is folding every box, and we are talking about thousands of boxes every day,” says Fukai.

feature YLC Signature Pastry Box3 2 1Branding is another part of Aya Pastry’s packaging puzzle. “We have to think in terms of what kind of bakery we are,” she says. “We are a bit more upscale in terms of pricing and our quality, so we wanted to differentiate that in our packaging as well.”

To ensure customers can recognize her pastry shop immediately from its packaging, Fukai created an eye-catching green logo and signature background design. Additionally, the shop’s address and phone number are included on most of their packaging, especially important for baked goods as they’re often given as gifts. Whole cakes come in an all-green box, invoking that special feeling of a Tiffany’s box, says Fukai.

Another unique package design is a small pastry box that has a sliding paper tray inside and comes with its own carrying handle, eliminating an additional bag. That tray allows customers to eat their treat right away. The container’s design also helps protect the precious cargo from any damage.

As far as future packaging needs, the goal is to be able to continue to use what they have and not add anything more. Says Fukai, “If the packaging is done right, we shouldn’t have to change it.”