Travel-Ready: Why COVID-Friendly Packaging Is Necessary

How retailers and suppliers are pivoting their food packaging during the pandemic
Photograph courtesy of Pactiv Evergreen

CHICAGO — The evolution of foodservice packaging is nothing new to the convenience-store industry. A move to eco-friendly or portable options has been a consistent progression. And thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, consumers are now looking for something else: They need it safe, too.

“COVID-19 put a pause on self-serve and open containers because of food safety concerns,” said Lynn Dyer, chief sustainability and public affairs officer for food-packaging manufacturer Pactiv Evergreen, Lake Forest, Ill. “From COVID-19 on, [food] must be in a container, and it must be the right kind of container. What we are seeing now is c-stores looking at this as an opportunity to revamp their whole menu and their packaging.”

But pivoting to pandemic-friendly packaging isn’t an easy task. While some retailers have begun tackling it, others don’t even know where—or if—to start.

Pandemic Precautions

Only 14% of U.S. foodservice operators said that they added safety measures to their food and beverage packaging during pandemic-related dine-in closures, according to the 2020 Delivery & Takeout Consumer Trend Report by CSP sister data firm Technomic, Chicago. This ranked behind takeout services (35%), curbside pickup (34%), contactless delivery (18%), mobile ordering (18%) and other strategies.

“[What] we have done is buckle down and concentrate on overall cleanliness rather than packaging,” said Chris Postlewaite, director of foodservice for Cruizers, a chain of 26 c-stores based in Chapel Hill, N.C. “COVID-19, as far as packaging is concerned, hasn’t affected us.”

But operators who have implemented safe packaging initiatives appear to be in it for the long haul. Of the 14% who said they’ve added these measures, 94% said they will keep them in place even after the pandemic subsides, according to Technomic.

“More grouping, less touchpoints, it gives the consumer the ability to only touch one thing.”

Clark’s Pump-N-Shop, Ashland, Ky., has revamped its current packaging options with enhanced safety measures. When the pandemic first hit, the chain of 68 c-stores in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Florida shut down roller grills and placed those hot dogs and sausages in warmers to be served pre-wrapped. While this initially hurt roller-grill sales, it increased hot-food sales overall because it “pushed customers over to the warmers,” where they also purchased more fried chicken and burgers, said Jessica Russell, director of foodservice for Clark’s Pump-N-Shop.

Clark’s also halted its reusable cup program and switched to disposable cups only, whether for coffee or fountain drinks. Most recently, Clark’s implemented a new beverage lid dispenser tower at its newest store; the plastic lids are the same as before, but customers can only access one lid at a time to avoid contact with multiple lids at once.

Of course, pandemic-friendly packaging is a brand-new concept, and some operators may be unaware of what’s out there. One way to implement this type of packaging is through tamper-proof seals and lids, which make it apparent if a container has been opened, unsealed or broken. Tamper-proof seals have become especially popular across all foodservice segments during the pandemic as operators have shifted to delivery and curbside pickup—and consumers want it. Nearly half (47%) said that it’s important or extremely important that their food and beverage packaging is sealed with a tamper-proof sticker, according to Technomic.

“The transition to off-premise during the coronavirus pandemic has heightened the need for high-quality packaging that is also safe and tamper-proof,” Technomic said. “Brands can work with their packaging suppliers to assess the best options based on their needs while packaging suppliers may need to ramp up supply of tamper-proof options and larger boxes to accommodate new menu items. Brands that offer tamper-proof packaging can integrate this into marketing messages.”

For convenience stores, one area to focus tamper-proof labeling is pizza, said Mark Minor, president of MinMor Industries, Minneapolis, an equipment manufacturer for c-stores, restaurants, consumer-packaged goods (CPG) brands, medical companies, and other segments. Retailers have shown “lots of interest” for contained pizza boxes rather than sleeves or traditional pizza holders, he said.

“A lot of folks were using open heating systems and have a slice of pizza on a tray,” he said. “But we've now seen a lot of interest in an enclosed box, something that's a little bit more sealed.

MinMor currently offers these single-slice, tamper proof pizza boxes to its c-store partners. Each clamshell box is made with corrugated and heavy-duty paper designed to withstand different printing methods, the company said. They are also FDA-approved, and, beyond being COVID-19-friendly, are designed with insulation to retain food temperatures and appearances and resist grease.

“Customers can get what they want, take it out, open the box, and they've got a fresh piece of pizza without worrying that it's been sitting there in the open,” he said. “People want to have that comfort that no virus has gotten on [their pizza].”

“We are going to see more takeout and more delivery even after COVID-19, so I think safe packaging is here to stay.”

Besides tamper-proof sealing, retailers can also create safer food packaging through bundling, said Wes Stone, CEO of Savannah, Ga.-based c-store foodservice sales and marketing agency Ultimate Sales. While this has mainly been tinkered with on the cold grab-and-go side, item bundling has proven to ease consumer concerns that multiple items are being touched, he said. Ultimate Sales has worked with chains such as Maverik in Salt Lake City and Twice Daily in Nashville, Tenn., to offer single-package meal combos, which often include a sandwich, apple and bag of chips per container, he said.

“More grouping, less touchpoints, it gives the consumer the ability to only touch one thing,” he said.

While the pandemic is unlikely to last forever, consumer habits gained during this time may endure, said Stephen Enfield, CEO for POS Supply Solutions, Middleton, Mass., a producer of thermal and carbonless paper rolls, thermal labels and credit-card supplies for retailers.

“We are going to see more takeout and more delivery even after COVID-19, so I think safe packaging is here to stay,” he said.

Save the Planet

While safe foodservice packaging options are the hot topic in the c-store industry, environmentally friendly alternatives—a budding trend before the pandemic—continue to surge as well. More than two-thirds (68%) of consumers said they at least somewhat agree that environmentally friendly packaging is important or very important, according to Technomic’s 2019 Packaging Trends & Outlook report. Beyond that, more than half (52%) said they’re willing to pay extra for eco-friendly packaging, while more than a quarter (27%) said they’d be willing to pay at least 5% more for food and beverage items sold in environmentally friendly packaging.

“While the current emphasis on packaging now is quality and safety, consumers will come to place greater importance on eco-friendly options once the pandemic subsides,” Technomic said.

Earlier this year, Kum & Go LC, Des Moines, Iowa, revealed it will move toward compostable salad bowls, lids and cutlery, as well as Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)-certified straws and birchwood stir sticks for coffee and tea. This continued the 400-store chain’s mission toward sustainability throughout its locations, which are also light-emitting diode (LED)-certified, according to Kum & Go’s 2018 Corporate Responsibility Report.

“Supporting sustainability efforts is important throughout our business,” Jeff Shamburger, vice president of foodservice for Kum & Go, said at the time of the announcement. “By switching our food packaging, we’re reducing waste and better presenting our premium products.”

Similarly, Cruizers is “deep in review” for a new branded, food packaging program that focuses on eco-friendly options, Postlewaite said. So far, the chain has replaced plastic and Styrofoam cups with recyclable paper options and is working toward biodegradable lids and straws as well as compostable paper packaging for pizza slices. Postlewaite had originally planned for Cruizers to roll out its new packaging program by the end of 2020 but has since delayed that to the middle of 2021 because of the pandemic, he said.

“We’re working on getting as much Styrofoam out of the store as we can,” he said. “Our audience in North Carolina is concerned with our environmental impact, so we’re trying to be involved with the community and take what the community has given to us to move forward.”

While convenience-store operators explore the idea of sustainable packaging, their suppliers are leading the charge. In late October, Pactiv Evergreen revealed that by 2030, 100% of its products will be made with recycled, recyclable or renewable materials. So far, Pactiv Evergreen has decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by 10% in the last five years and has shifted to biomass, hydropower, wind and solar energy. 

“We want to do what is good for the customer, what is good for us and what is good for the environment,” said Dyer of Pactiv Evergreen. “Compostable paper, molded fiber, recycled and bio-based plastics—that is the direction the industry is moving in.”

Whether they’re seeking safe or eco-friendly packaging options, retailers may not always know where to begin. To start, Dyer suggests conducting inventory of all menu items, and then consider how each is produced and can be reformatted.

“Understand what the needs are, if it will work for you and the customer, and what opportunities it creates,” she said. “Packaging becomes part of the experience and needs to work well with the foods and beverages you are trying to sell.”

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