C-stores are taking a closer look at their foodservice packaging today as they expand takeout and delivery options, ensuring food arrives at its final destination looking as appealing as when it left the store.
Delivery was already a growing component of many foodservice programs prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the past 18 months have simply accelerated that trend, according to Natha Dempsey, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI).
Focus on the performance of packaging has always been of the utmost importance in foodservice — keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold — not only for customer satisfaction, but food safety as well, Dempsey explained.
With curbside pickup and home/office delivery, packaging is increasingly one of the few ways foodservice outlets such as c-stores can interact with their customers, Dempsey added.
In many cases, she emphasized, it may be the only interaction.
The care retailers put into their packaging clearly communicates the stores’ overall commitment to providing the highest-quality products and customer service.
“What used to be a pass-through over a counter or through a drive-through window — a 30-second to three-minute interaction — has extended out to longer times in delivery situations,” she said.
With more families dining together at home during the pandemic, takeout orders are also getting bigger, requiring packaging that can hold more food without tearing or breaking. At Y-Not Stop stores, which has 15 locations in Louisiana, t-shirt plastic bags have been replaced with large, brown paper bags for foodservice like customers would get at a restaurant.
“It’s such a simple thing, but our customers seem to like the paper bags, and we plan to continue to use them,” said Amanda Austin St. Romain, marketing director for Y-Not Stop.
Although Cliff’s Local Market in New York State did not need to offer curbside pickup or delivery during the pandemic, the chain had to be flexible with its foodservice packaging when its usual containers became difficult to source.
“All of a sudden, packaging we’ve used for years doesn’t show up on the truck,” said Derek Thurston, director of foodservice operations for Cliff’s Local Market, which operates 20 locations.
But the issue required more, operationally, than simply switching containers — for example, when it came to salads, trading the usual round salad bowl for a new square one was only the first step. The entire layout of the food presentation in the container had to be thought out and changed as well to ensure that it looked as attractive and tempting as usual.
“It’s important that our customers know that, except for the packaging, nothing has changed, and they are getting the same quality food in the new containers,” Thurston said.
The new salad bowls are more expensive than the ones they are replacing, but Thurston likes them better and says he will continue to use them even when the usual packaging becomes available again.
In November, Cliff’s stores will also transition from foam to paper cups for its hot dispensed beverages ahead of a foam ban that will take effect on Jan. 1, 2022. The 6×9-inch takeout containers used for food will also be switched from foam to paper.
Test of Time
As retailers continue to evaluate their packaging quality, safety and appearance remain key considerations.
“Packaging selected by foodservice operators has to hold up to the test of time,” Dempsey pointed out. “The overall appearance of the packaging also presents an opportunity to represent the brand with appealing and memorable graphics.”
In addition to driving more curbside pickup and delivery demand, the pandemic has fueled a rise in consumer concern over sanitation. Dempsey noted that tamper-evident and tamper-resistant packaging have become staples for many operators to offer additional assurances to customers that their food and beverages were not opened after they left the store.
“For the most part, we expect these trends to continue and will most likely be adopted as standard operating procedure for the foreseeable future,” she said.