To-go boxes were once just a minor line-item for restaurants. Now they’re a lifeline.
Shifting to takeout during the pandemic has forced food operators to reassess their menus and staffing. It’s also made them do far more thinking about to-go packaging than many ever imagined.
Today chefs pore over catalogs for paper goods the same way they obsess over ingredients. Because when you deconstruct the dining experience, it’s things like packaging that can leave consumers with a bad taste in their mouths (literally, some fear). And with that comes a whole host of hospitality dilemmas: Will the integrity of the dish stay true? Will the food stay hot? Will the sauce seep out? And what impact will all of this packaging have on the planet?
“Prepandemic, delivery was on the upswing and a double-digit growth area for restaurants,” said David Henkes, a restaurant industry consultant at Technomic. For full-service restaurants, takeout was seen as a revenue-boosting way to stay competitive in an increasingly crowded market, accounting for about 10 percent to 15 percent of their business. Then, of course, the industry came to a screeching halt.
“Suddenly it was not only a lifeline but a much bigger part of the satisfaction of the perception of your restaurant,” Henkes said. “How that food got delivered and the nature and quality of the packaging became front and center.”
For Greg Reeves, the chef and co-owner of Viale in Cambridge, takeout containers in “Before Times” were mainly for doggy bags full of leftovers. The idea of serving food to-go was antithetical to the entire point of dining out.
“I’ve always hated takeout. It’s lose-lose for everybody,” he said. The customer is “spending a ton of money and getting charged more because of fees” from third-party delivery companies, he said, while getting an inferior version of a meal.
But now he’s relying on takeout for anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of his revenue. That means more containers than he can count. And it’s driving him nuts.
“For a salad,” he said, using an expletive not appropriate for family newspapers, “it’s 14 containers because you want to put the cheese or croutons on the side so they don’t get soggy. For each meal, you end up spending 85 cents on to-go containers, then GrubHub takes 25 percent. But you have to do it, and you have to be happy to have the takeout,” he sighed.
Just as the nation scrambled to find toilet paper as the crisis started, restaurateurs were left in the lurch when they had to quickly shift to takeout and delivery.
“Our eyes were always on the prices of proteins, dairy, seafood, produce, etc.,” said Alex Saenz, of Bisq and Taqueria El Barrio. “Once COVID hit and the world flipped, we noticed, without warning, the hefty change in prices for all our goods. Takeout containers and bags, disposable utensils, cups, gloves, and such all skyrocketed.”
Plastic containers were suddenly a hot commodity, and at one point, a case of gloves that used to be $35, he said, jumped to $125.
Some of those pricing fluctuations have since calmed, and chefs say they’re spending less on things like the soap they need to wash dishes. But with the price of paper goods now representing a higher percentage of their fixed costs, every plastic tray, little tub for salad dressing, and pizza box is cutting into their bottom lines.
“It’s an environment where every cost is exploding and revenues are declining,” said Henkes. “As a restaurant operator, you’re looking for anywhere to cut pennies. As packaging costs go up, it’s another hit.”
For some, making it work has meant thinking outside the traditional takeout box. At Alltown Fresh, the upscale convenience stores in Plymouth and Ayr, chef Joshua Smith worked with a local package designer to craft a huge cardboard container that could be used to carry out entire meals. Each box costs $4.75. But shifting from a model where he was selling sandwiches to fully prepared dinners is far more lucrative. “I’d rather sell $75 than $7.50,” he said.
At Uni, which had a nascent takeout business pre-COVID, the team has had to find ways to recreate a luxury dining experience at home. That’s meant sending sushi omakase home in chocolate boxes, with little menus tucked inside like the little “candy maps” you find tucked inside boxes of Russell Stover chocolates. They also purchased small glass bottles for to-go cocktails.
“We hand-label them so it feels fun and rustic,” said Harrison Smith, the restaurant’s general manager, who admits it’s “definitely different” to box up an upscale dining experience.
“I was always interested in food and wine and working in beautiful restaurants. I never thought takeout would be a big part of that,” he said.
Of course, many watching this pivot to takeout are cringing, knowing all of this to-go packaging comes at a huge environmental cost.
“The plastics industry did not waste a millisecond when COVID hit in March putting out misleading propaganda about how single-use plastics were the only hygienic thing we could do in a public health crisis,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director of MASSPIRG. “We lost a lot of ground.”
She’s hopeful that with the pandemic forcing operators to think about how much they spend on packaging, more will look to seek sustainable, reusable methods. One small victory, she said, is that some delivery apps now have an option where you can ask for cutlery and ketchup packets; you don’t just get them automatically. And some restaurants are now adding fees on their takeout items to cover the cost of the packaging.
Some purveyors, such as Mary Lattouf and Brian Corbey of Lulu Green, say finding cheaper alternatives goes against their ethos. They use compostable, PFAS-free containers, American-made and plastic-free coffee cups, and other items that can cost twice as much as other, cheaper, disposables. And despite seeing revenue declines, they’ve maintained their packaging standards throughout the pandemic.
“We built this concept with a mission of being sustainable and being environmentally friendly, but it’s real easy to just go onto your online ordering portal and just order the cheaper deli container or to-go container,” said Corbey. He says he has encouraged his industry colleagues to look elsewhere for savings — such as renegotiating linen or waste removal contracts — before opting for less-sustainable packaging.
“It’s a major commitment to us, and we’re committed to maintaining the packaging standards. We did everything else possible to not stray from that commitment,” he said.
Chefs say they’re hopeful that patrons aren’t too hungry to notice those little details when they tear into their takeout.
“It costs a little more to have vents on boxes so fried chicken or fries would stay crispier longer. It costs a little more for the container that holds the pasta warmer longer and doesn’t absorb the extra juices that make it so good. We deconstruct burgers and sandwiches so they wouldn’t arrive soggy,” said Saenz. “Trying to do the right thing can be expensive in a time where we can’t afford to pay another 3 cents for something. That adds up quickly.”