Restaurants have differing opinions on carryout packaging. Some view it as a necessary expense with little to no financial return, while others see it as a representation of their brand and a contributing factor to the overall dining experience.

Many high-end restaurants never had much to-go business. They may have used pricier paper boxes for "doggy bags," but may now switch to lower-cost foam as their take-out volume rapidly increases. Other moderate or low-price restaurants, on the other hand, may be upgrading their containers to appeal to diners who suddenly have more options for takeout food.

"With restaurants relying on carry-out for revenue, many had no choice but to embrace elevated packaging," says Thiakos. "I think this has opened up operators' eyes to the benefit of better packaging and why it really does help increase their bottom line, despite being more expensive."

Restaurants need containers that will keep food warm, crisp and tidy. Distributors can provide a valuable service by helping their foodservice clients match the right packaging to their various menu items.

The options are seemingly endless, from cheap white foam containers to nicer black-bottom and clear-top poly containers. There are large-format containers for family-size meals, coffee carafes that can be repurposed for to-go cocktails, and tamper-evident seals for bags and containers to address concerns about delivery.

There are also a wide range of features to address almost any food-specific challenge — including multiple compartments, secure-fit lids, steam venting, wrapped cutlery and more. Imperial Dade offers a wrapped cutlery kit that includes a single serve packet of hand sanitizer.

"A simple item like a label can secure a closure, indicate if the container has been opened and provide branding," says Craven. "It's an easy and cost-effective item, but not something that might have come to mind pre-COVID."

Distributors are also helping customers survive this pandemic by providing critical personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitizing products.

"Everybody wants masks, hand sanitizer and thermometers," says Davis. "I never sold 10 thermometers until recently, and now we are selling thousands."

As restaurants grapple with dramatic changes to how they conduct business — along with the devastating financial impacts — many have put sustainability initiatives on the back burner. Demand for eco-friendly packaging, which was increasing before the pandemic, has slowed.

Distributors expect this to be a temporary setback as restaurants find their bearings in this "new normal." In short order, however, they anticipate renewed interest in things like paper straws and compostable clamshells.

"That issue isn't going away," says Davis. "It's been gaining lots of momentum, and I think as soon as this situation slows down, it's going to go right back to the top of the list."

Dealing With Demand

The sudden shift in April from traditional to take-out dining had a significant impact on the supply chain.

"Many vendors extended their lead time, others put us on allocation for certain products," says Thiakos. "Our goal was to anticipate as much as possible and get ahead of some of these issues, and also to have alternate items available to accommodate the customers."

Many distributors had a backlog of orders. Some found alternative containers and bags for customers and others were able to work with varied vendors to meet demand.

There have also been struggles for distributors who don't normally sell much PPE. Foodservice clients desperately need help securing gloves, quat-based sanitizer, hand sanitizer, sanitizing stands and dispensers, and face masks. Their distributors have taken drastic measures to help.

"We turned to brokers who had relationships with overseas manufacturers that converted their operations to start making masks," says Davis. "We didn't have any credit terms with them, so we had to pay enormous amounts of money upfront to get an order. It was really hard on cash flow."

Manufacturers have also had to adjust. As an example, some makers of foam containers pared back stock, keeping units to only include white and no other colors.

Although demand has eased, things could rise again in the coming months or year as the country continues to deal with spikes in COVID-19 cases, the threat of additional lockdowns and changes in regulations.

"We don't know what this virus is going to do," says Davis. "There's just so much uncertainty and it's not something we can control. I think sales will creep back up, but I don't think it will be fast."

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.

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Packaging, Supply Strategy Key To Foodservice Success