Where did all the foam lunch trays go?

The backstory of how the restaurant industry gobbled up schools’ foam lunch tray inventory.

When the pandemic first hit, Americans saw a lot of unusual things: empty streets, empty businesses, empty schools. All of society recognized this viral threat to our way of life, and many businesses and other facilities shut down for a while. Thankfully, many of us have moved back to some sense of normalcy. But, as students began to return to the classroom, something strange happened that affected school cafeterias across the country—multi-compartment foam school lunch trays, in large part, had disappeared. Where exactly did they go? One would think that schools being shut down would mean there would be a surplus of foam lunch trays, not a shortage. Here is what happened.

See it from the manufacturers’ point of view

In mid-2020, manufacturers of foam lunch trays faced a difficult challenge. For the most part, the schools for which they provided trays closed because of COVID-19, so the demand dropped to almost zero. Meanwhile, restaurant to-go and delivery business was booming like never before. Foam tray manufacturers really had no choice. There was demand for folding foam to-go boxes, but almost no demand for multi-compartment foam lunch trays. Manufacturers went all in on to-go boxes.

Entrepreneurial spirit steps in

During this journey, some entrepreneurs noticed how the usual providers of foam lunch trays to schools were focused on the new to-go box demand for the restaurant industry. Rumors were circulating about school cafeteria staff literally cutting the folding to-go boxes in half to serve students, and cafeteria staff driving hours and hours just to find a few trays here and there at retail chains. Entrepreneur and business owner Bo Worthy of Worthy Promotional Products, based in Wetumpka, Alabama, recognized this growing need for schools. Worthy explained, “I’ve been doing business in the institutional and retail industries for 35 years, and I kind of had a unique perspective on what was happening. I saw how desperate some school systems were to find foam school lunch trays and similar items, and how the retail industry was booming with take-out and delivery. We understood what was happening at the USA manufacturing level, and that it couldn’t get back into product balance any time soon. We saw the same problem continuing well into 2023. I knew that only entrepreneurial-thinking companies who can react quickly and fill the gap would be able to help solve this problem for schools. Within two weeks, we were moving foam lunch trays by the truckload. Probably one of our biggest hurdles at first was convincing schools that we really did have trays in stock. CNP directors were very hesitant to believe me. That’s a good problem to have though. We’ve been able to secure the manufacturing ability for anyone who needs trays throughout the next 12 months, into 2023.”

Julie Bone, Child Nutrition Program Director for Morgan County Schools in Decatur, Alabama, was one of Worthy’s first foam tray customers during the pandemic. She recalled her initial conversation with Worthy on the phone, “Bo, I’m sorry but nobody has trays. Nobody. How is it possible that you have them? Do you actually have trays in stock?!” Worthy laughed and said, “Yes, I have them in stock…That’s just what I do, Julie. I make things happen.”

We’re not back to normal quite yet

While many parts of the American lifestyle have returned to normal, delivery and to-go business for restaurants have likely been permanently impacted. More people want to eat at home, where they feel a greater sense of safety from the virus. Add to that the endless news cycles that confuse us, with some reports of a possible new wave of COVID and maybe another shutdown—or maybe not. Reporters say it’s bad in one state and not so bad in another. That makes it very difficult for manufacturers of foam trays to gauge future demand for schools. What is clear? To-go business for restaurants continues to go, go, go.

Cafeteria foodservice supplies are back on the menu

Students are back in the classroom, and at lunchtime, they’re back in the cafeteria. However, there are still serious challenges facing cafeteria managers and foodservice directors, ranging from food shortages and inflation, to staffing issues, and more. But hopefully, the return of foam lunch trays and similar foodservice supplies to school cafeterias is a sign of overall improvement.

To learn more about Worthy Promotional Products, visit https://worthypromo.com/school-lunch-trays-in-stock/.

This post is sponsored by Worthy Promo