From Fred Flintstone to Chick-fil-A, humans continue to work toward more productive and effective ways of preparing and preserving food. Ancient civilizations have used the materials native to their environment to create new ways to hold and preserve food for thousands of years. Egyptians developed glass blowing techniques as many as 3,500 years ago to make bowls to hold their food. Sheets of Mulberry bark were used in China to wrap food as early as the first or second century. When the first containers were needed, nature provided gourds, leaves, hollowed out logs, reeds, and grass to weave tightly together to create a basket. The smells and textures of Mulberry sheets and dead trees might be a fun re-enactment experience for a camping excursion, but we hold a lot of gratitude for the advancements that have been made in the way of food containers in the modern world and more than likely we have a lot less splinters than our predecessors.


Evolution of Materials  

After the use of gourds, leaves, hollowed out logs and ancient Egyptian glassblowing, China’s Emperor is credited with the invention of paper, the oldest example of what is called flexible packaging. History continued to advance and wooden barrels gained popularity in Medieval times to store water and rum as well as dried foods when traveling across the ocean. It was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that the materials used for containing food for preservation and ease of transport really took off.

Nicholas Appert is reported to be the first to provide the option of “canning” in glass containers, in response to the call from French General Napoleon Bonaparte who offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could preserve food for his army. This canning process transitioned into using tin instead of glass, and by 1820 British Inventor Peter Durand patented his own canning method and was supplying the British Royal Navy with canned food in large quantities.

Cardboard boxes and corrugated paper came about in the early and mid-nineteenth century, making way in the year 1890 for the company that is now known as Nabisco, to provide biscuits packaged in a moisture barrier box to preserve crispness. This was followed at the turn of the century by Kellogg’s first cereal box and Toasted Corn Flakes were introduced to the public.

It seems that once the idea of inventive ways to produce containers and materials to keep food fresh came onto the scene, it blew the lid off the industry and kicked off the Age of Science and Mass Production.


The Material And Why It Matters

Choosing the right containers for your business is crucial. Deciding on size, material, and cost are the most important factors in that decision. Invest time and research in this endeavor to calculate your costs and reduce waste. Consider a brainstorm session with the staff, those who bus tables, the servers, the kitchen staff, and management as they will provide valuable input on this element of the business.

Paper and cardboard are practical for food items that need to breathe like pizza, fresh baked bread, or doughnuts. Storage space is often precious in a restaurant or bakery and these types of containers are usually available to store flat until ready for use. Many cardboard or paper single use items are eco-friendly and either recyclable or biodegradable making it a great earth friendly option.

Styrofoam was invented in 1941 by Ray Dow and is praised for its light weight, water resistant and buoyant material. Dow reportedly discovered Styrofoam by accident when he was working on the development of an alternate flexible insulator. Styrofoam has a tricky reputation. While it is loved by many frugal business owners, beach-goers with Styrofoam coolers, and late-night snackers devouring cold leftovers straight from the container, it is also equally loathed as a result of its negative environmental impact and the potential for cancer-causing properties.

Plastic was the late to the game and arrived on the scene in a commercial form in the early 1900’s but was initially used primarily by the military. By the mid-1900’s plastic had made a name for itself and has continued to be an important material in the food preservation industry. Plastic is unique in that there are molded containers and a version that is flexible, well known as plastic wrap. Currently, packaging designs are beginning to incorporate recyclable plastics, but the reach for improving in that department continues.

The ancient use of metals to plate and coat boxes, cups and bowls paved the way for the rigid packaging we use today, usually made from tin and aluminum.  Metal was not commonly or safely used in food handling until the early 17th century since it was considered poisonous. After cans were invented and progressively improved, a hammer and a chisel were used to open them, followed by the development of a key wind metal tear strip which led to the revolutionary 1875 invention of the can opener.


The Paper Pail

The Chinese food takeout box, initially referred to as a “paper pail”, is iconic in American history and has been around since Fredrick Weeks, a Chicago inventor, patented it in 1894.  He fashioned it after an oyster pail and it was made from a single piece of paper that was folded, origami-style into a leak-proof container, secured with a wire handle.

The white origami-style paper boxes continue to be a staple in the food industry and though we associate them with Chinese food, they are strictly an American tradition and have never been used in China. Technology has changed over the years, allowing more stable and efficient materials, but the paper takeout containers used for Chinese food remain mostly unchanged.

As with any good invention, it has been used as a reference, or jumping off point for additional food container options and within the last 125 years, food storage containers have become so efficient and customizable that you can find nearly any size or shaped container you might need.


The Origins of the Pizza Box

Pizza arrived in America after World War II, when soldiers who had been introduced to pizza in Italy wanted pies at home too and interest in pizza dramatically increased. Hot out of the brick oven, pizzas would sit on a stiff corrugated base before being slid into a fitted paper bag. The thin paper would allow steam to escape but only at the loss of the heat and cold pizza wasn’t as appetizing. Orders began to stack up, but the bagged pizza could not. Delivery became a popular request and pizza makers responded with the creation of a thin paperboard box which still allowed the steam to escape, but often resulted in a soft unsupported box. While the paperboard box was in use for quite some time, it was Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan who deserves the thanks associated with a piping hot pizza delivered in a sturdy pizza box today.

There are currently several companies dissecting the concept of a pizza box and looking for new and inventive ways to improve upon it. Creativity and innovation are vital in a world where forward movement is essential. Never underestimate the value of something as simple as a pizza box.


Dine In or To Go

Restaurants first provided the option to dine-in or take out in the 1920’s. Leading up to this revolutionary change in the restaurant industry, business owners recognized that workers were often unable to go home for lunch and jumped at the opportunity to fill the need for a quick meal that could be eaten on the go. This also provided the ability to reach another ripe community… travelers. Street vendors began to pop up on busy streets and in train stations. The advertising and marketing for food that could be sold, prepared, and ready to eat in a disposable container gained speed, and even today doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.


The Plastic Impact and the Need For Green

The world seemed to come to a screeching halt in the first months of 2020. While most businesses were impacted in some way, restaurants were hit particularly hard since patrons could no longer dine in, forcing take out to become the primary source of revenue for these eateries. Prior to the pandemic, many companies spanning numerous states vowed to reduce waste and provide alternative green options to plastic. The pandemic temporarily closed the lid on those endeavors, while hygiene and safety trumped all other concerns. Companies scrambled to purchase enough single-use containers to meet the demands of the newest consumer limitations.

A CNBC article published in June of 2020 reported in response to the controversy the food industry now faced, “The problem is especially apparent in the restaurant industry and its increased reliance on food delivery services. Many restaurants, even those that were curbing plastic waste prior to the pandemic, are not limiting the amount of plastic involved in takeout orders.” This caused the reactionary response of many businesses to temporarily rewind their go-green policies. Grocery stores prohibited the use of reusable bags requiring single-use plastic bags, coffee shops interrupted the consumer’s use of personal cups and mugs, requiring single use paper cups instead.

Historically, when something of this magnitude occurs, while temporarily crippling the goal (in this case to reduce environmental waste), it also provides an opportunity to create something better. “Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.” – Niccolò Machiavelli

Brandi Schuster, the Head of Market and Customer Activation for Packaging Adhesives at Henkel in response to the backward slide the industry has faced due to the pandemic said, “…there are two ways we could go. You could say, well, we have a few more years now, because people are into single use again, and that’s good for us. Or we could use this momentum to continue to drive sustainability.”

Many companies like Eco-Products are doing just that, reaching for better and more renewable opportunities to provide fast and efficient ways to utilize sustainable and environmentally safe food containers.


An Owner’s Guide

As a restaurant owner, having the right supplies can make or break a successful revenue day. Juggling the responsibilities of business ownership can be overwhelming. In an ever-changing industry like the restaurant business, it is vital that supplies and inventory are consistently assessed for cost analysis and effectiveness. We recommend developing a connection with a reliable supplier and re-ordering when you are down to a month’s supply, so you minimize the risk of running out during a busy week.

Create a master supply list and laminate it, so employees can mark an item that needs replenishment making it simpler to re-order when necessary. Label your inventory storage well so that you can easily restock when needed.