With so many changes on our minds throughout the pandemic, there is no shortage of misconceptions that frustrate our industry.
One myth at the top of that list, as we talk to our Imperial Dade customers across the country, is that foam packaging is banned everywhere. That is simply not true. However, there are some areas of the country that do have bans on foam packaging and other plastic products. With that in mind, I reached out to Paul Krachuk, who has been one of our go-to people as we look to help our restaurant and hospitality customers respond to the ever-changing laws in their local jurisdictions.
I thought a good place to begin would be the obvious question of why foam is thought to be bad for the environment. “It has been researched and reported, and the verdict is that moving away from foam, or expanded polystyrene, to more sustainable packaging is what consumers want. The prevalent concern is that foam particles, which are very lightweight, become airborne and end up in waterways and other areas where they have a negative environmental impact.” He also noted that although foam is recyclable, there is not enough demand to make it economically viable to build out the recycling infrastructure.
One of the on-going challenges through the pandemic has been to balance the momentum of the ‘green and sustainable’ movement with the immediate need for ‘clean and safe’. Paul gave me an interesting answer: “The restaurant industry has suffered tremendously during this pandemic. Many owners lost everything they have worked for. Those who remain open are experiencing record inflation in food, labor, supplies, and third-party delivery fees. These bans, albeit environmentally focused and reflecting the consensus of the public, perhaps could have been postponed allowing restaurants to regroup, get their finances shored up, and weather today’s supply chain challenges.”
Part of our role at Imperial Dade is to advocate for our customers in terms of creating options that can control pricing. With that goal in every product segment, we will lead the search to find multiple product options. This has proven to be a challenge as we look for replacement for inexpensive foam. “There have been pilot programs over the years using different types of materials, but they were expensive and there was limited production capacity,” Paul added. “Today, expanded polystyrene is the only widespread option for foam foodservice packaging.”
With New York’s ban going into effect last month, the challenge of helping our customers find alternatives is here now. I asked Paul to give us a read on what we are seeing as restaurant and hospitality operators seek to follow the new law. “It is early in the process. We’re keeping our ears and eyes open to see how the market reacts,” he explained. “The higher end operators have already transitioned to foam alternatives but smaller operators that are more budget conscious will need to address this change. We’re offering to work with them to find creative solutions.”
It’s time for New Jersey operators to also prepare their strategy as the Garden State ban will go into effect on May 4th, 2022. “These types of changes can force an owner to really evaluate their business practices and analyze what works and what doesn’t,” Paul continued. “With the impending increase in packaging cost, look at your menu and ask where is the volume? What are the slow movers? What menu item prices need to change? Packaging manufacturers are now doing the same with their portfolio of products. Today, more than ever, we must be more efficient. I recommend you rationalize your inventories and streamline your operation. We can help you work through that process.”
Implementing a new strategy begins with creating a new product mix. I asked Paul to describe various foam alternatives that maximize value. “The list begins with some really creative packaging including hinged lid clamshells made from recycled water bottles and containers that are microwavable and reusable. We are also seeing new styles of paperboard boxes, molded fiber containers, and clear recyclable PET containers which are great for cold items. With so much focus on takeout and delivery, there in an increased need for tamper-evident products, including special labels to close sandwich wraps and take out bags. Those labels are inexpensive and can be custom printed to market the restaurant’s brand.”
“Compostable products such as PLA, which is made from corn starch, and bagasse, made from sugarcane byproducts, are also available. However composting facilities are few and far between. Molded fiber, made from recycled paper, has been around for a long time and is popular for menu items that are not overly wet. Mineral-filled polypropylene reduces the amount of plastic used in production and creates a rigid container. There are always the traditional aluminum rounds with paperboard lids. The best bet is to review your menu with an experienced packaging expert and go over the options available.”
As restaurant operators work towards finding their next normal, a fresh look at costs, functionality, guest satisfaction, and product life cycle are all important. Think about how your takeout and delivery menu has evolved. You may be offering more expensive entrees for off-premise sales that you never planned on. Those menu items probably warrant a higher performing package to meet customer expectations.
“Restaurant takeout volume has been increasing over the years and packaging manufacturers responded with new and improved to-go containers,” Paul continued. “They focus on food quality and presentation that mimic, as close as possible, the sit-down dining experience. Features including a tight lid fit to maintain temperature and prevent leaks, venting holes to preserve texture, and compartments to ensure a nice presentation.”
The biggest challenge in responding to the foam bans is, as Paul described, “Foam foodservice packaging has always been the low-cost option, offering the operator a suitable cup or container within their budget. As customers have become more informed and more passionate about environmentally friendly products, they are driving change. Changing to meet the needs of those customers can be a good investment.”
Customer expectations are that the cost of a menu item is the same if you dine in or take out. Presently, inflation and supply chain issues are leading some operators to add a surcharge for packaging. Only you as the operator can take the temperature of your dining patrons. Are they willing to pay more for more sustainable packaging or higher quality packaging? Be transparent and share information with customers on why you are making changes. Ask them for feedback.
The foodservice packaging experts at Imperial Dade are here to help you build your strategy to replace foam and build your “next normal” packaging strategy.