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How the Pandemic Put New Demands on Packaging

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As it has in so many other realms — think of the rapid maturation of e-commerce in 2020 — the pandemic has acted as an accelerant on the evolution of one of the humblest and yet most important pieces of the foodservice supply chain: restaurant food packaging.

Gone are the days when restaurants and their customers were most concerned with ease of use or appearance. Today, the bag or container must communicate “safety” to consumers.

“When it comes to foodservice packaging, COVID-19 is a trend accelerator,” said Ashley Elzinga, the Foodservice Packaging Institute’s director of sustainability and outreach. “These trends — tamper-resistant packaging, reducing the number of touchpoints — were already starting to become a small part of the market, but now they’ve exploded due to all of the drive-thru and curbside pickup, and contactless operations.”

Elzinga and other spoke at a webinar on this topic sponsored by the National Restaurant Association. In addition to helping consumers feel confident about the food, Elzinga said other packaging trends include:

  • A lower number of touchpoints to reduce handling;
  • Tamper-resistant packages and safety modifiers;
  • More contactless pickup, or anything aiding contact-free hand-off;
  • Packaging suppliers expanding lines to include more options, and getting better at what they already do;
  • New suppliers entering the space; and
  • A higher expectation of new, solution-providing options and materials.

Packaging products ran into their own supply chain issues during the pandemic, with some suppliers running out of supply and unable to meet operator demand.

“From a demand aspect, the industry really scrambled, turning into a supplier-focused, emergency replanning and rebalancing exercise.”

“Before 2020, most of the strategic conversation around packaging was geared toward sustainability and environmental impact, but last March, everything turned to safety and sanitation, and supply security,” said Kristi Kingery, Tropical Smoothie Cafe Corp.’s vice president of supply chain and strategic initiatives. “From a demand aspect, the industry really scrambled, turning into a supplier-focused, emergency replanning and rebalancing exercise.

“Think about it: Demand for packaging for theaters and stadiums disappeared, but packaging for hospitals skyrocketed, and institutions that hadn’t relied on packaging — like schools suddenly charged with providing off-premises lunches — created whole new areas of demand.”

Another concern regarding foodservice packaging during the pandemic: It might be the only way restaurants can communicate their brand and its image to homebound consumers. At the same time, it needs to convey the care the company put into the preparation of their food.

“[Packaging] and the delivery driver were the actual first impressions the customer had when the food arrived,” noted Susan Miles, director of global sustainability at Yum Brands’ KFC. “Packaging contributed to how well it traveled, what it looked like when it got there, the product quality. We strongly want our packaging to reflect the care we take at our restaurants — in preparing the food and, hopefully, transporting it. We want it to be convenient and contribute to an overall positive experience.”

The restaurant association’s packaging webinar also featured Missy Schaaphok, senior manager of global nutrition and sustainability for Yum’s Taco Bell chain. You can find other National Restaurant Association webinars here.

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