It's What's Outside That Counts

In 2013, Culver's, a fast casual known for its butterburgers, sought to acknowledge American farmers for their contribution to the chain's success through a new campaign. Culver’s painted barns in the Midwest royal blue, the brand’s color, along with the words, “Thank You Farmers.”

The campaign reflected the company’s core values, according to Emily Patterson, Culver’s director of marketing.  “The idea of wholesome, delicious food, and knowing where that came from, was a natural fit for us in terms of what our brand stands for,” Patterson  says. “The packaging was another vehicle for us to showcase that message.”

Like Culver’s, many quick-service and fast-casual restaurants that may have once viewed packaging as something consumers take and toss without much thought now regard it as a valuable extension of their brand and its marketing initiatives.

“It’s an opportunity for them to get a message across to current consumers,” says Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute. “If you see someone walking down the street holding a product, it can act as a walking billboard.”  

As a result, Dyer says, more packaging features unique graphics, colors and components that are used to tell a story. And images aren’t the only element restaurants are employing.Today’s packaging design trends range from an increased emphasis on being green to portability.

Sustainable Materials  

Interest in environmentally friendly materials, such as napkins made from recycled content and packaging that can be recycled or composted after it’s used, is currently the biggest packaging-related movement, according to Dyer. "I hesitate to even say it's a trend because it's just a part of doing business now," she says. 

Four in 5 consumers say reducing packaging waste is as important as reducing food waste, according to recent research from market intelligence agency Mintel; 52 percent say they prefer items with no or minimal packaging, which may include thinner plastics or limiting the number of materials used to package individual items. 

Impactful Claims

“We’ve, for sure, seen an interest in local, healthy or clean, organic ingredients being used in the foodservice industry,” Dyer says. “That ends up transcending into packaging—does it portray that type of image?”

In the past year, Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshopwhich serves made-to-order salads, wraps and sandwiches,underwent a lengthy approval process to be able to say its menu items, made with locally grown produce, are USDA- and FDA-approved.

To emphasize these attributes, specific nutritional information is included on labels placed on its grab-and-go items sold in gyms, coffee shops and other locations around Los Angeles and Orange County, California.

While impactful, think beyond the food label alone when sharing product information. “Label requirements are so restrictive—and what you want to share about the food can get lost on the label,” says Roll. He uses terms like “all-natural” and “fresh” for Greenleaf’s napkins, water bottles and other packaging items. “Generally speaking, there’s a little more real estate on the bag,” Rollo says. This approach also keeps labels text-light and easier to read. 

Social Media Integration

Some eateries are using sites like Instagram and Facebook to announce their packaging has a new look; others have tied online promotions into their packaging design.

In October, Culver’s packaging served as an integral part of its nearly month-long cheese curd promotion. A call-to-action featured on the eatery’s bags encouraged people to share a photo of themselves “nerding out” with the beloved fried side, a tie-in to the Curd Nerd character the brand features.

“We’ve encouraged social media interaction with that bag,” Patterson says. “By encouraging them to share photos on Instagram and other social media, we created engagement between the brand and guests.”

Innovative Design

Although appearance is important, practicality has become more of a concern in recent years, according to Dyer. For example, chains may work to ensure French fry containers fit in a car’s cup holders so diners can devour them as they drive.

To ensure Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop's packaging is user-friendly, the eatery examines how its grab-and-go items are carried, if they’re durable enough to be stacked and if they’re easy to open, while being tamper-proof.

“We test it out—put different products in the packaging, and let it sit, beat it up,” Rollo says. “We call it the two-year-old’s test. [New packaging] has failed 99 percent of the time, but that’s why we put it through that.”

Often foodservice operators don't think about packaging until the very end of the R&D cycle, according to Dyer. But it may be wise to move packaging testing and decisions up in the schedule—and think about the future. “Can your packaging perform in a slightly different way for catering? Is your packaging drone-delivery ready?” Dyer asks. “These are things, depending on your brand, you really do need to keep thinking about.”

With a number of new dining innovations on the horizon that stand to change the way fast-casual and quick-service food is served, restaurants need to be ready and willing to find new ways to meet consumer demand for easy, on the go, and environmentally-friendly eating.