Takeout orders increased a whopping 237 percent for full-service restaurants during the pandemic. As expected, the use of consumables — single-use, plastic-sealed paper napkins and plastic cutlery sets, clamshell takeout boxes, Styrofoam or plastic cups, and plastic cutlery dispensers — also surged. The result? A higher-priced, harder-to-find consumables market that has distributors scrambling.

“At first it wasn’t that hard to source product,” recalls Louie Davis, vice president of sales, Central Paper Company, Birmingham, Alabama. “But supply chain issues and labor shortages quickly changed that.”

While the supply chain is improving, effects of the Great Resignation still ripple through the industry in unexpected ways.

“I know of a Styrofoam plant that can run 20 machines, but only has the labor to run seven,” Davis reports.

That labor shortage is forcing some institutional foodservice managers to swap their traditional dinnerware and stainless steel for consumables.

“It takes one or two people to preclean, run and unload a dishwasher,” explains Davis. Thus, shifting to disposables makes more sense.

Labor shortage or not, Dr. Gerba makes the argument that, based on a study done at his university’s restaurants, plasticware dispensers are always the more sanitary choice.

“As you might expect, the tops of the silverware were more contaminated, because people were handling the tops while looking for the utensils they wanted,” he says. “With the dispenser, you usually only touch the item you are going to use. Also, people use fewer items with the dispenser because they only pick out what they need.”

Of course, this strategy butts right up against the desire to limit, or eliminate, single-use plastic. There are compostable and recyclable options out there, but these products can be more expensive, and you must already have a compost facility. Still, Davis does not think that recyclable or compostable consumables are going away anytime soon, especially if the pandemic wanes.

That may be the case, but for now it seems that the pandemic has forever changed restaurants and foodservice. The National Restaurant Association’s report states that more than 25 percent of fast-casual and quick-service restaurants plan to maintain their COVID-19 adjustments. This means more take-out options, more drive-thrus, and ghost kitchen concepts that offer delivery-only menus. Even cocktails-to-go may be here to stay.

Jan/san distributors can be valuable partners while restaurant owners seek to grow their top and bottom line.

“Owners clean and disinfect for their own reputation and the health and safety of their staff and patrons,” says Sawchuk. “This is a great time for jan/san distributors to develop relationships, offer their expertise, and really get a look under the hood at these places. It’s a win/win for both parties.”

Amy Milshtein is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.

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