By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.
In foodservice, packaging used to be an afterthought, simply a vehicle to get the product from here to there. However, today’s food packaging does more than just hold product.
According to Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI), “Every coffee cup, sandwich wrap and clamshell is an extension of your brand; it’s putting your message directly into consumers’ hands and having the in-store experience extend far beyond the walls of your store.”
Packaging should be an integral part of the research and development stages of a food product. “It is part of the consumer’s overall product experience and plays a big role in how they enjoy your products,” Dyer said. “It’s the packaging that will determine whether they can enjoy foods that should be hot or cold at their proper temperatures.”
Increasingly, consumers are looking for packaging that is environmentally conscious, Dyer noted. They are paying more attention to the food they’re eating, wanting to know whether it’s all-natural and organic. “That attention is flowing into the packaging for those food products,” she said.
Consumers are looking at both the beginning and the end of the packaging materials’ life cycle, Dyer said. They want to know if the packaging is made from sustainable or recycled materials and, after they are used, if they can be recycled or composted.
In some markets, there are also legislative regulations on packaging. Some areas tax or totally ban certain kinds of containers. Sometimes c-stores are exempt, but not always.
For example, in August, the City Council of San Jose, Calif., approved a ban on Styrofoam take-out boxes. The ban includes convenience stores. Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz already have passed bans on foam containers. San Jose also bans plastic bags.
“It’s important to keep an eye out on local packaging legislation and whether it applies to convenience stores,” Dyer said. FPI tracks that information and makes it available to its members. Sustainable packaging was a major category at a recent packaging awards event Dyer attended.
In its recent “Eco-Eating Culinary Trend Mapping Report,” Rockville, Md.-based research firm Packaged Facts profiled edible packaging as a coming trend to reduce the cost and environmental impact of packaging. The report predicted that soon edible wrappings will be available for a variety of foods, including sandwiches.
“We use green packaging whenever we can because customers do ask about it,” said Rickey Theel, MY Deli category manager for Brentwood, Tenn.-based Mapco Express. “One of our concerns is that it is still so expensive.”
Food security is also an increasingly important issue for consumers, Dyer said. That is why it is important that food packaging be tamper-evident, especially if the products are prepared off-site and displayed in open cases.
Convenience is another key factor to consider when developing packaging. With dashboard dining becoming more prevalent than ever, it is important to use packaging that will keep the product neat while it is being consumed. Dyer pointed to containers that were designed to fit into car cup holders and sandwich, wrap and burger wrappers that remain around the products while they are being consumed.
“Also, is there a place for the ketchup? Something as small as that can mean a lot to a customer,” she said. “Retailers have to think beyond ‘how am I going to sell this product’ to ‘how are the customers going to get these products where they’re going, eat them away from the store and still have the full brand experience.’”
For its delivery service, Burger King had special packaging designed to keep its products fresh and hot during transit. For its French fries, the company had packages made with special air filters to maintain crispiness. For its sandwiches, packaging elements separate hot and cold ingredients.
Theel added that consumers are also looking for reclosable packaging. “They want to make sure the products will not be compromised if they want to store any unfinished food in the refrigerator,” he said.
Linda Cavanaugh, director of foodservice for Pak-A-Sak, the retail arm of Jay Petroleum of Portland, Ind., looks for versatility in packaging.
“It has to be useful for more than one food item,” said Cavanaugh, who oversees the food program at the company’s 34 stores. “I don’t want to have to inventory a thousand different package sizes.”
Theel also requires multi-use packaging. “I want a box that I can use not only for salads, but for sandwiches, pastries and cookies,” he explained.
Dyer mentioned a packaging innovation that had several key messages written on one wrapper. Depending on the way the wrapper was folded, a different message about what was inside was revealed.
New technologies are allowing package manufacturers to design eye-catching as well as functional packaging, Dyer said. Graphics and appealing call-out information about the products (e.g. “fresh,” “all-natural”) can create a visual “wow factor.” Listing nutritional information on the package can also help to communicate healthfulness and wholesomeness.
Earlier this year, for example, Dallas-based 7-Eleven launched new graphic packaging for its sandwiches. The packaging features a contemporary, dot-grid pattern in shades of lime green on sturdy, clear plastic.
According to the company, the new sandwich graphics are the first step toward a storewide overhaul of packaging to call attention to the quality of 7-Eleven’s prepared foods and beverages. The retailer worked closely with a color consultant to develop a pallet of hues that has been shown to appeal to Millennial consumers. 7-Eleven has also added a packaging engineer to its staff who worked closely with the company’s marketing agency and a graphic designer to create the new packaging.
“The packaging serves as the stage for the food and needs to convey freshness, quality and the 7 Eleven brand image,” said Kelly Buckley, the chain’s vice president of fresh food innovation. “It also needs to make the food easy to eat on the go.”
Theel agreed that it is important for customers to see the food through the packaging. “The food speaks for itself; it speaks to the customer,” he said.
With the proliferation of smartphones, QR codes, which can pack a lot of information in a little space, are also becoming more prevalent on food packages. In January, McDonald’s announced that it was unveiling new packaging designs on all carry-out bags and fountain beverage cups with QR codes “to provide consumers with information to help them make informed choices,” according to a company press release.
“Our new packaging is designed to engage with customers in relevant ways and celebrate our brand,” said Kevin Newell, McDonald’s chief brand officer. “Customers tell us they want to know more about the food they are eating and we want to make that as easy as possible by putting this information right at their fingertips.”
Sometimes it is a challenge for retailers to find the exact packaging they want. Theel explained that retailers should not hesitate to approach packaging manufacturers directly.
“I made a rough prototype of a package I wanted and the manufacturer made it for me,” he said.
FPI represents 85% of packaging companies in America. The association offers free membership to foodservice operators and a searchable list of packaging producers on its Website, www.fpi.org.