Packaging demand and supply have been in flux throughout the pandemic, and though strain from the push into takeout and delivery may have reached a kind of equilibrium, a number of foodservice operators are still facing issues when it comes to sourcing the materials needed to package food and serve it to customers.
In fact, insufficient quantities of supplies and packaging was deemed one of the top three supply chain obstacles faced by K-12 dining teams, according to the results of a School Nutrition Association survey released in December.
And in a recent FoodService Director survey of noncommercial operators, 95% said they’ve had trouble procuring products in recent months, with packaging and paper products highlighted as particular pain points by many.
What’s the issue?
“Like most industry, the foodservice packaging supply chain has been impacted by everything from material sourcing to transportation and labor issues. All of which has lent itself to ongoing disruption,” Natha Dempsey, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, said via email. “The current inflation rates are, of course, also pouring salt into open wounds.”
One of the biggest obstacles for John Fear’s team at Bronson Battle Creek Hospital in Battle Creek, Mich., has been sourcing matching cups and lids to serve menu items.
They might, for example, find a 5-ounce portion cup from their main vendor, but the matching lid isn’t available, so they reach out to another vendor for a similar lid, only to find later that the two don’t fit together properly. “Now I’m out in the market searching for a base that matches a lid, which is just kind of an odd way to go about doing that,” says Fear, the hospital’s director of food and nutrition.
His team is also experiencing a lot of drop ship products, he says, making it harder to tell when certain orders will arrive. “It might take a week, 10 days, 14 days—we have no idea,” he says, “and then of course, the following week, when you’re doing inventory again, and ordering again, hopefully you kept good notes and indicated that ‘Yep, we ordered this item, we’re waiting for it to deliver’ and you don’t order it again.”
The growing cost of these items is another issue, he says: “Sometimes, it’s been so startling that we’ve actually gone back and double-checked to make sure. Items that used to be $50 or $60 dollars a case are all of a sudden $120 dollars.”
This isn’t so much of a problem with cups, he says, but particularly applies to more specialty sorts of products, such as hinged clear salad containers and microwaveable hinged containers.
And despite ongoing cost pressures, a pandemic hasn’t been the ideal time to raise menu prices, he notes, particularly in the hospital environment.
Hospital staff typically make up about 60% of his operation’s customers, though that came closer to 100% during the pandemic as visitors were restricted. “[It wasn’t] really the best time, with everything going on inside of the hospital, to start significantly increasing the prices of things. We kind of had to eat that for about 18 months,” he says, noting that “we’re kind of coming out of that now” as COVID abates locally and in the hospital.
What’s in store
“Packaging that can serve multiple purposes and offer restaurant and foodservice operators flexibility are still key,” according to Dempsey, who notes that these sorts of products can help when supply problems arise.
Though she believes supply chain volatility will remain on the horizon given the circumstances, she says that “[p]redictions are a lot harder to make than they were two years ago.”
Fear echoes the former sentiment, noting that he’s heard from his major vendors that current supply issues will likely remain throughout 2022.
In the meantime, operators have turned to local warehouse stores to help fill gaps. “I have gone to Walmart and cleaned them out of trays and plates,” Sherry Sedore, foodservice director at Pellston Public Schools in Pellston, Mich., said in response to FSD’s supply chain survey.
In addition to using multiple vendors, online retailers have been a solution at Bronson Battle Creek. “To be honest, we go out to Amazon,” Fear says. “I never in my life thought that we’d be buying disposable items for a hospital foodservice operation from Amazon or … Webstaurant, two companies that we never did any business with before.”