Pizzeria owners already know how to package pizza, but it’s a challenge to wrap up salads, appetizers and pasta to go. As operators increased their carryout and delivery options during the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to find new boxes for these other foods. The containers have to be well made and inexpensive, and meet other requirements such as environmental sustainability.
Most of the takeout and delivery orders at Joy Hill Pizza in Denver are for pizza, but lately customers have been ordering appetizers such as the Walnut Ricotta and Hummus Plate and the Charcuterie Plate with meats and pickled vegetables. “It did take us a while to figure it out,” says Julia Duncan-Roitman, partner and managing member. “We wanted to streamline packaging so we didn’t have to order a ton of products, and we felt guilty about the waste we are creating.”
Duncan-Roitman says it would have been easy to use the cheapest option, Styrofoam clamshells, but she wanted to use recyclable and compostable containers. After much trial and error with many samples from vendors, Joy Hill Pizza opted for a nine-inch by nine-inch by three-inch compostable clamshell. The container works well for appetizers, such as the popular pepperoni rolls, as well as for salads and other items. For sauces and dips, the eatery uses small soup bowls, and sides such as salad dressing or burrata go in two-ounce containers. “We try to multipurpose everything as much as possible,” she says. “We are very crunched for space.” To defray the added costs, Joy Hill Pizza raised prices gradually and slightly.
Environmental issues are top of mind at Sunny Hill in Seattle, where the takeout containers are made of expelled sugar cane. “It has to be highly compostable and recyclable,” says owner Jason Stoneburner. “Seattle is a very green area.”
In addition to environmental concerns, there were other considerations. Sunny Hill offers pizza as well as burgers, meatballs, waffle fries, salads and other items. The boxes had to be tall enough not to smash the top of the burger buns. To prevent the waffle fries from getting soggy in a closed box, they are packaged in bags. “We looked at how the packaging interacted with the food,” says Stoneburner, who also owns the restaurants Stoneburner and Bastille. “We are concerned about the guest experience, and about the unboxing of the food.”
The boxes had to be spill proof and sturdy, as customers often eat in their cars or at the park across the street from Sunny Hill. Also, the boxes had to reflect the premium branding of the restaurant. “We were worried about flimsy packs that don’t travel well,” Stoneburner says. “We have to think about keeping on par with what’s important to us. We use organic local ingredients and we wanted to carry that through our to-go packaging.”
To make up for the added cost of the eco-conscious packaging, Sunny Hill charges one dollar for orders placed on the Tock platform. “When you use the online ordering system, it shows up as a line item and you are aware,” Stoneburner says. “It’s a dollar. We’ve gotten almost zero pushback.”
Compostable is not the only eco-friendly option. During the pandemic, Brasserie Brixton in Denver became (Le) Brix Pizza and Wine. The owners built a Neapolitan wood-fired pizza oven and began offering pizza, salads and appetizers for takeout and delivery. Menu items such as Roasted Carrots or Beet and Burrata are packaged in plastic containers.
“I find a lot of people, when containers are compostable, they use them only once so it’s environmentally unfriendly,” says chef and partner Nicholas Dalton. “I wanted to get something people could take home, wash in the dishwasher, and use again to take to work.” Dalton says the plastic containers cost more than traditional clamshell containers, but less than compostable.
Presenting family meals
Some restaurants launched to-go family meals during the pandemic. Los Angeles-based Fresh Brothers, with 19 locations in California, launched a Wings Tailgate Bundle and a Lasagna Family Meal last year. “As people were eating more at home, they were looking for more creative ways to feed their families,” says chief executive officer Geoff Goodman. “We never had a family size offering other than a large pizza. We didn’t have another core entrée that we could offer to guests.”
The $39.99 Lasagna Family Meal features a fully cooked lasagna in a baking tin, plus an order of garlic knots, inside a large catering box. The $49.99 Wings Tailgate Bundle comes in a large box that features 50 wings on one side and six sauces on the other side. “It’s a nice case,” Goodman says. “You flip up the lid and it’s a beautiful presentation.”
Also last year, Fresh Brothers upgraded its salads, and started packing them in fully compostable containers with clear lids. The clear lids help consumers see the quality of the salad, and the compostable feature reflects the chain’s commitment to the environment. The investment paid off, as Goodman says salad sales are up considerably. “We always focus on getting better versus simply getting cheaper,” he says. “We are very in tune to what our guests expect from us. Even when things are difficult, those are times you work smarter and not just find pennies.”
Safety is also a factor in takeout and delivery packaging. Fired Pie in Scottsdale, Arizona packages its salads in clear clamshell salad containers. The pizzeria also offers Mac & Cheese, which comes in the foil container that it is baked in. “The only thing we did add was the safety stickers on all third-party takeout,” says Fred Morgan, co-owner of the 21-location Fired Pie. The stickers display the restaurant logo and are meant as a tamper resistant device. “There were some reports on the news of third-party drivers eating food from bags or boxes, [and they] even showed a driver drinking a shake then delivering.”
Nora Caley is a freelance writer who covers small business, finance and lifestyle topics.