Restaurants quickly pivoted to takeout to survive the pandemic—but they have struggled to think outside the to-go box.
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Keeping french fries from getting soggy. Preventing sushi toppings from looking sloppy. All while mitigating the added costs and widespread packaging shortages. These are among the problems with takeout packaging that restaurants face.
With chefs and restaurant owners expecting the shift away from eating out to last beyond the pandemic, they are increasingly investing in better containers to keep their food from falling apart en route––and if possible, replicate the restaurant experience at home.
Many high-end restaurants didn’t offer takeout at all until recently. That has made for a steep learning curve in keeping lobster and sushi in top shape on its way to a customer’s house.
Garry Kanfer said he has spent at least $70,000 to create takeout packaging for his New York restaurant Kissaki Omakase, which serves a $150 per person multicourse traditional Japanese dinner––sometimes sushi topped with caviar. The challenge was finding a way to package the fish in a way that people would still want to pay $20 for a sushi roll or $7 per piece of nigiri.
He said he designed the packaging for his nigiri as though it were expensive shoes or a luxury bag, including art work of a fish similar to a mural at the restaurant’s entrance. But the executive chef was nervous that the toppings would be a mess. “He thought it would degrade the brand,” Mr. Kanfer said. “I said we need to adjust to the new world.”
There have been a few hiccups, like delivery drivers dropping the artistically displayed sushi on a rare occasion, but many customers have posted photos on social media complimenting the packaging.
The problem now is trying to find domestic suppliers of the boxes, after initially importing them from Asia amid shortages in the U.S. “With how much we’ve invested, we are going to keep doing this long term,” Mr. Kanfer said.
The pandemic has caused shortages of even basic items like paper bags, said Scott Barthelmes, president of Mrtakeoutbags.com, which sells packaging for restaurants. “It’s still a challenge. We are looking at import partners to fill in the gaps,” he said. He added that sales for years were “spotty” for packages with tamper-proof seals until the pandemic arrived but now such bags, including those that are biodegradable, are in high demand.
Randi Sirkin, vice president of creative services for Starr Restaurants, said the group has been obsessively sourcing packaging. She said the famous $100-plus cheesesteak sold by one of its restaurants, Barclay Prime in Philadelphia, had to look like $100 when it arrived in people’s homes.
“We bought a gold box with gold wrap and gold paper shred. It felt luxurious,” she said.
In Chicago, Brian Ahern, co-owner and executive chef of boutique steakhouse Boeufhaus, said one of his biggest frustrations is that he can’t sell steak fries with his takeout.
“French fries to go suck,” he said. “If someone ever figures out a to-go box that would help them stay crispy and fresh and not steamed and soggy, they’ll be a millionaire.”
Mr. Ahern left french fries off his menu, as a result. A couple of weeks ago though he started selling dinners to-go in oven-ready packaging and struggled to find the right stuff. If the meat had an acidic sauce or marinade, the taste of the aluminum foil came through once it was heated. Plastic containers for souffles gave off too much steam and were creating pressure.
“We found ourselves poking holes in the top to let the steam out,” he said. Then other containers for hot sauces melted or weren’t the right size. “If it’s too large, and you fill it halfway, you’ll look cheap,” he said.
Even big chain restaurants accustomed to takeout orders have their issues with packaging amid the pandemic. Manufacturers said drink totes are also in short supply since many cities began allowing restaurants to sell cocktails to go, and coffee runs consisted of larger orders that required more carriers. Starbucks Corp. customers in some cities reported bringing back the same ones to reuse them because of the shortage. A Starbucks spokeswoman said the supply chain didn’t face a nationwide problem.
Golden Chick, a fast-casual chicken chain with nearly 200 restaurants in the southern U.S., has been struggling to find the right sizes and types of to-go boxes lately. Jim Stevens, president of the chain, said: “It’s just one more thing we have to worry about.”
The extra packaging needs are also adding costs. Shake Shack, which now uses sealed bags with additional internal packaging for security, has said that the additional expenses will weigh on their profits as long as Covid-19 lasts.
With the increase in to-go packaging and delivery orders, some restaurants are concerned about the added waste. “What we have works for now, but we want to find something that’s more environmentally conscious,” said Mr. Ahern of Boeufhaus. “The amount of packaging for each meal is just wild.”
—Julie Wernau contributed to this article.