The surge in meals to go brings packaging challenges and innovation

Operators share how they’re dealing with availability, sustainability and other issues as packaging demand grows.
Packaged Sandwich
Photograph courtesy of Sodexo

When colleges, schools and workplaces shut down early this spring, foodservice operations either came to an abrupt halt or were scaled way back. The dining halls and cafeterias that remained open quickly transitioned to takeout and/or delivery exclusively, and foodservice packaging needs changed drastically.

“The education market quickly became almost non-existent,” says Natha Dempsey, president of the Food Packaging Institute (FPI), a trade association for the industry. “As a result, some manufacturers decreased packaging production.” That shift left some foodservice operators scrambling.

To complicate the situation, the packaging supply chain suffered a few kinks. At the start of lockdowns in the U.S., areas of Europe and Asia had already been shut down for weeks, and problems developed over importing materials for containers and disposables. Further delays were caused by reduced labor overseas and transportation snags.

Manufacturers in the states were not closing production facilities, but there were many pinch points, Dempsey says. “Along with disruptions in transportation and shipping, with offices and stores like Target closed, there was very little recycling of paper and corrugated cardboard,” she says. The packaging industry relies on these materials to make containers and boxes.

Communication and flexibility are key

Through it all, operators who embraced flexibility and maintained close ties with vendors were able to get the packaging they needed. “For a while, paper bags were in short supply but we found an alternate source,” says Lynn Browning, head of retail excellence for Sodexo. “We also ordered more than we needed of certain items and held them in our warehouses. For example, we purchased 300 cases of compostable salad bowls instead of 100 to keep a constant flow.”

Browning also maintains continuous communication with managers at each Sodexo location to stay on top of demand. “We’re expecting big orders from the C&U sector starting in August and through the fall,” she says. “We’re going into unchartered territory but takeout and delivery are going to continue to be the focus.”

Andrew Greene, chef and sector purchasing manager for Chartwells Higher Education, agrees. “We anticipate there will be an increased demand for takeout/grab-and-go and are prepared to work with our third-party commissary partners as well as internal commissary solutions to help meet any consumer demand with delicious offerings,” he says.

Greene has also aimed to be a good steward of packaging supply during the pandemic. “Since the onset of COVID-19 we have been working together with Foodbuy—our internal partner/purchasing arm—to secure disposables and anything else required as we shift to accommodate new service styles,” he says. “Communication has been key to help reduce the bullwhip effect and earmark the right amount of supply, ensuring it is available where it is needed.”

Disposable manufacturers are largely keeping up, Greene adds. Chartwells does its part to “help level off demand shocks,” he says. “We have been working transparently with our partners since March to understand and secure the needed materials and working arm and arm with Foodbuy and our distribution partners, building in some flexibility to help us all be successful this fall.”

The sustainability challenge

Now that supply has pretty much caught up with demand, other issues have emerged. Grab-and-go and takeout were already on the rise before the coronavirus crisis, and priorities such as compostable packaging and zero waste were top of mind for many noncommercial operators. Sustainability is still a priority, but packaging safety and performance are gaining importance in the current environment.

“Sustainability is an important part of our culture, and we are always looking for ways to find more sustainable options,” Greene says. “Our goal is to be more sustainable but the primary concern here is making sure our associates and guests are safe.” Initiatives such as tamperproof packaging and single-use utensils in sanitary wrappers are more essential than ever to the foodservice program.

That said, “sustainability is personally a passion of mine, and we are doing everything we can to implement sustainable options where we can,” says Greene.

Sodexo is on the same page. The company’s Simply To Go program, which offers grab-and-go meals to B&I and college dining locations, uses branded compostable packaging. “Our menus are focusing on foods that fit the packaging and make for easy grab and go,” says Browning.

“Tamperproof packaging is a very big trend going forward,” says FPI’s Dempsey, “but performance is everything. The industry is putting more innovation around performance to get food as close to restaurant quality as possible.”

Sodexo is already innovating around contactless beverage dispensing, meal ordering and payment. “We began rolling out our app called Bite, and now it’s almost everywhere Sodexo has accounts,” says Browning. Customers not only can view menus and nutrition information through Bite, they now can order and pay for carryout and delivery through the app and take advantage of promotions, she says.

Everyone in foodservice is collaborating to come up with the best solutions, Dempsey says: “I’m optimistic that we’ll see lots of packaging innovation come out of COVID-19.”


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