April 15, 2021

Brands talk pandemic’s impact on foodservice packaging

Since the pandemic, important characteristics associated with packaging include tamper-resistant containers, outer bags, and seals.

Restaurants traditionally judge foodservice packaging on five characteristics.

  • Performance
  • Appearance/presentation
  • Cost
  • Ease of use for staff
  • Ease of use for consumers

But things have changed since the pandemic, says Ashley Elzinga, the Foodservice Packaging Institute’s director of sustainability and outreach. According to a 2020 FPI survey, the most important characteristics now associated with packaging are:

  • Consumer confidence in and assurance of safety
  • A lower number of touchpoints (to reduce handling); the fewer the better
  • Tamper-resistant packages and safety modifiers (such as outer bags and seals)
  • 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
  • A higher expectation of new, solution-providing options and materials

Elzinga shared those findings when she moderated a National Restaurant Association webinar featuring Susan Miles, director of global sustainability at Yum Brands’ KFC, Kristi Kingery, Tropical Smoothie Cafe Corp.’s vice president of supply chain and strategic initiatives, and Missy Schaaphok, senior manager of global nutrition and sustainability for Yum’s Taco Bell chain.

Download our podcast episode on the pandemic's effect on foodservice packaging

“When it comes to foodservice packaging, COVID-19 is a trend accelerator,” Elzinga says. “These trends—tamper-resistant packaging, reducing the number of touchpoints—on [handling of them] 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.”

Pandemic creates supply and demand issues

Kingery agrees that 2020 was pivotal for packaging.

“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,” she says. “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.”

She adds that some packaging suppliers sold out their inventory and couldn’t meet operator demand. As a result, supply became a code-red situation for some brands, especially those that needed it for off-premises delivery, their only life support for months.

Packaging is the brand ambassador

Schaaphok says packaging became an even stronger asset for brand marketing. With the rise of digital transactions and off-premises business, packaging served as the main way restaurants got their brand in front of customers.

“When guests walk into a restaurant, they get the visuals—the lighting, d├ęcor, mood and music, a fully immersive experience,” she says. “Once we took that experience off-premises, packaging served as the only tangible experience guests had with the brand.”

With that in mind, the company had to think about the texture of the packaging, the sound it makes, the colors, performance in maintaining the integrity of the food and ease of use, she explains, because it might be the only interaction the customer has with the brand off-premises.

Miles agrees that because KFC’s guests didn’t get to see its cooks hand-bread their chicken or watch team members carefully assemble their meals, packaging was an extremely important branding tool.

“That and the delivery driver were the actual first impressions the customer had when the food arrived,” she says. “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.”

Sustainability back on the plate

Before the pandemic, several restaurant and foodservice companies were adopting sustainable practices, such as purchasing compostable and recyclable packaging and reducing food waste. Schaaphok says that as things begin to return to normal, companies will again ramp up their sustainability goals and initiatives.

Customers, especially millennials and Gen Zs, want restaurants to practice sustainability and be socially responsible. In addition, a number of state and local jurisdictions have passed bag and foam packaging bans and restrictions.

Many regulations were on hold at the beginning of the pandemic, but are now starting up again. The FPI’s Elzinga says right now, there are more than 150 proposed pieces of legislation in 30 states related to foodservice packaging.

Schaaphok says all of Yum’s brands are committed from a packaging standpoint to supporting forest stewardship; it sources packaging made from 100% certified sustainable fiber.

The company also has overall waste-reduction goals, including recycling. She adds that Taco Bell, specifically, is committed to leaving a lighter footprint, but that the issue is complex, especially regarding packaging, because it has to perform and function operationally and in consumer-friendly ways.

“We’ve had to shift our direction in the short term during the pandemic. It changed our supply process, but we're still marching towards the same commitments and goals. And, with in-store dining starting to reopen slowly, we're starting to pick that work up again.”