Expert Interview – Foodservice Packaging Trends

For this month’s Expert Interview I spoke with Howard Hirsch, VP of Business Development at Imperial Dade. With 25 years’ experience in the distribution industry, Howard has a great deal of knowledge about foodservice packaging.

LC: How did you get started in the industry?

HH: I graduated college in 1992. It was a Friday afternoon. On Monday at 5:30 AM, I started working in the warehouse of my family’s distribution business. I had the opportunity to learn all aspects of the business from loading trucks, making deliveries, managing inventory, and working with customers. I loved making connections with customers, listening to them tell me about their business and then helping them solve problems. Today, I enjoy mentoring the next generation of sales professionals and teaching them about our industry.

LC: What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the marketplace over the last few years?

HH: The customers have immediate access to information about new products and manufacturers, domestically and world-wide. They see a photo of a product online and want to order it. However, that product may not be something that is readily available or even appropriate for their operation. My role is to educate them on the supply chain, manufacturing processes, and guide them in selecting the best product for the application.

HH: Another big change in recent years has been our customers’ interest in “going green.” That movement is still going strong with no signs of slowing down. And, there is a focus on portion control and cost-savings.

LC: Tell me more about how you do that.

HH: For example, we have a fast-casual restaurant customer. They were using a standard 32oz bowl that was too big for their salad. By sourcing a custom 28oz-30oz bowl we were able to help them reduce the package to better suit their needs. This resulted in a cost-savings on both food and packaging as well as reducing waste.

LC: What are the current trends in packaging right now?

HH: Everyone is talking about sustainability. Compostable versus recyclable products is a hot topic. The issue is that our industry and our customers are far more ahead of the curve than most municipalities. We have compostable products and our customers want to use them, but the product usually ends up in traditional garbage collection. Composting facilities are not yet available in many areas.

LC: Take-out and delivery are a big deal now. Has that trend impacted packaging choices?

HH: Yes, when food is packaged to travel and be eaten at a later time there are other considerations. A tight lid fit is important as is rigidity. Temperature and humidity are also factors. We work with our customers to find a packaging solution specific to their menu items and operational needs.

HH: Branded packaging is huge. Everyone wants it. Single-unit stores want to print everything before opening. Some restaurant concepts need to open and breathe for a while. I recommend taking a look after 60-90 days to see what’s working and what’s not. At that point in time operators can make a more educated investment in printing their packaging. In the meantime, they can use labels.

LC: Branding is key to connecting with customers, especially in crowded markets.

HH: It is their identity and how they differentiate themselves. Keep an eye out for branded bags walking down Boylston Street or Madison Avenue. If done properly, the customer will identify with the brand and feel good about carrying that bag. When it comes to food, you eat with your eyes first. Presentation and quality contribute to that first impression. Packaging, when done right, can be a powerful experience.

LC: What predictions do you have for the future of packaging over the next few years?

HH: Customized packaging, not only the printing, but the shapes, colors, and sizes. Operators are not always satisfied with what’s currently available. They want their own proprietary items designed specifically for their menu items and that enhance their customers’ experience.

LC: What advice can you share to help restauranteurs with their packaging program?

HH: Spend time on research and development. Question every aspect of your packaging. Every detail, little or big, matters. Rely on an experienced supplier to guide you. Your customer’s experience is what you need to zero in on. If you can put a quality product in a quality package you are on your way to operating a successful foodservice business.

Howard is available to consult with foodservice operators on packaging and other restaurant supply chain topics. He can be reached at hhirsch@imperialdade.com.