Good packaging has always been difficult to find, and the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the problem with an influx of more restaurants into the take-out and delivery space. Independent restaurant operators are using a variety of approaches — and spending more and waiting longer — to source the products they need.
“Packing has always been a tough thing for us,” said Chris Smith, owner of Zunzi’s, a South African-inspired fast-casual concept with locations in Savannah and Atlanta.
To combat the challenges, Smith stocked a storage unit with a month’s worth of take-out supplies at the start of the pandemic. Still, he says, all of his supplies have run out at some point and he has had to dip into his backup.
“The supply chain has definitely been one of our biggest headaches,” said Smith.
When one of his suppliers, MrTakeOutBags.com, ran out of the sealable plastic bags Zunzi’s uses for to-go orders, Smith had to quickly pivot to find another vendor.
“As quickly as things go out, [we’re] trying to monitor inventory levels,” said Jim Joyce, national sales director for Babcor Packaging, which owns MrTakeOutBags.com. “Ultimately [we’re] limited by manufactures’ capabilities.”
Photo: Zunzi’s sealable plastic take-out bag proved challenging to source.
The family-owned packaging company has seen a 15% increase in stock orders over the last three months, and a 90% increase in customized/branded orders over the same time last year.
The company’s biggest seller right now? Those same sealed to-go bags that Zunzi’s has had trouble accessing.
“There’s a very high demand for the packaging that has tamper-resistant capabilities,” said Joyce. “Demand was just overwhelming. We ultimately ended up running out of them.”
Zunzi’s went with another supplier to get the bags, but has since returned to ordering from MrTakeOutBags.com now that its stock is replenished.
Paying more, waiting longer
If and when operators can find the right products, many have come to accept that they will have to pay more for them and wait longer to receive them.
To obtain ideal take-out packaging, fine-casual restaurant Angelina’s Pizzeria Napoletana in Irvine, Calif., partnered with a company in Naples, Italy, that makes boxes specifically meant to carry Neapolitan wood-fired Italian pizza.
“Because they are an imported box, we typically have to purchase large sums, anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 per order,” said Angelina’s owner Sho Fusco. “We had just placed an order pre-COVID, so we we’re OK on supplies.”
Next time she orders, however, Fusco expects it to take longer and cost more.
“Lead times will be longer for our next order, anywhere from four to five months,” said Fusco. “We suspect freight charges will be more as well.”
When the regular take-out packaging used at Marlow’s Tavern restaurants became in short supply, owner John Metz turned to additional vendors and allowed for substitutions and increased costs. For instance, Metz switched to white plastic flatware instead of black and moved to paper bags with no handles instead of handled paper bags.
“We will continue to push the quality, presentation and packaging of our to-go offerings,” said Metz. “If it costs a few more cents to deliver a quality product to our guests, then that is an expense we will happily incur.”
Photo: Brooklyn Chop House uses biodegradable to-go packaging.
Credit: Oscar Martinez
While some operators relied on suppliers to fulfill their packaging needs, restaurateur Garry Kanfer invested $50,000 to design, produce and manufacture unique take-out packaging for Kissaki Omakase, his traditional Japanese cuisine concept with three locations in New York.
“You have to invest in the presentation,” said Kanfer. “If food is good and presented well [customers are] going to post online and their friends will see it.”
The recyclable packaging Kanfer created with the help of Big Drop, his digital design agency, was customized to transport sushi and other dishes intact as well as echo the restaurant’s hand-painted interior design.
But doing it himself wasn’t without challenges.
“I wasn’t able to get anything done in the U.S. because all the factories were closed,” said Kanfer.
Instead, Kanfer selected several manufacturers in China to do small runs and went with the one that produced what he needed in a timely manner, and then he ordered enough to last three to four months.
Sticking with sustainable
When it comes to sourcing during the pandemic, taking what you can get has taken root. Yet, some operators remain committed to sourcing sustainable products.
Last year Brooklyn Chop House, the Asian steakhouse located in downtown Manhattan, responded to customer requests and made the switch to biodegradable products for its then-limited take-out business. When the pandemic hit and its takeout volume increased exponentially, the restaurant was ready to deliver its steaks, Chinese dumplings and other items in biodegradable rice-paper boxes, with wood cutlery inside a logoed craft paper bag.
“You have to listen to your customer,” said Stratis Morfogen, Brooklyn Chop House’s executive managing director. “The environment doesn’t need any more plastic.”
While the biodegradable products cost about 20% more than traditional options, Morfogen says it’s been worth it.
“People seem to be really excited about it, about ordering from us,” he said. “What’s the value to that?”
Morfogen said thus far his supply chain has been “perfect,” and adds that biodegradable products are slimmer than plastic, enabling him to order and store larger quantities.
Indeed, suppliers such as MrTakeOutBags.com report restaurant operators’ increased interest in sustainable packaging options.
“More people are a lot more environmentally conscious,” said Joyce.
Still, Joyce said some paper bag mills are “overwhelmed” and “lag times are double.”
Future of packaging
Sourcing packaging during the pandemic has been challenging for sure, but most operators don’t see it as a long-term problem.
“Packaging has started to stabilize in the last month,” said Zunzi’s Smith.
Additionally, after a few months of focusing on these challenges, operators have gotten the hang of it.
“There isn’t much of a challenge anymore,” said Angelina’s Fusco. “After a couple months of doing this we’ve really focused our process to make sure our food is the best representation to-go that it can be. We learned a lot … and will continue to apply those lessons in our daily process.”