Reusable Containers: the Future of Takeout

Although the coronavirus pandemic is waning, an increased demand for takeout is here to stay—along with increased waste from the single-use containers most restaurants use to package orders. However, there is an alternative: a growing number of services across the country provide reusable takeout containers, including Deliver Zero (New York City), Forever Ware (Minneapolis-St. Paul), GO Box (Portland, OR), Dispatch Goods (San Francisco), and Vessel (Boulder, CO and Berkeley, CA). 

In addition, some restaurants have launched their own reusable packaging programs, including fast casual chain Just Salad and Tiffin, a Philadelphia-based Indian restaurant chain with nine locations.

Details of the programs vary. Deliver Zero operates a platform where customers can search by their address or cuisine type, select a participating restaurant, and then return their reusable container to a participating restaurant or the courier who delivers their next meal. Forever Ware has customers check out and return their containers via a smart return station, similar to the self-serve kiosks at libraries.  Tiffin tracks their containers via QR codes, leveraging their existing online ordering system. 

All of these approaches offer the same advantages: they give restaurants the opportunity to decrease their carbon footprint, appeal to eco-conscious customers, and save money.

“The pain point we’re addressing is that single use takeout containers are environmentally harmful,” says Lauren Sweeney, co-founder and CMO of Deliver Zero.  Noting that compostable packaging typically has a greater emissions impact than other types of single-use containers, she believes that reuse is the only solution.

Natasha Gaffer, co-founder and CEO of Forever Ware, explains that single-use packaging often contains PFAS, chemicals that may be linked to harmful health effects.  To date, seven states (California, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington) have enacted phase-outs of PFAS in food packaging; she points out that restaurants can get ahead of legislation by transitioning to reusable containers now.  (There are single-use packaging options that do not contain PFAS, but Gaffer says that they may be subject to price spikes and shortages.)

Tiffin founder and owner Munish Narula says that customer requests and a desire to reduce waste inspired the reusable takeout container program, especially since the majority of the chain’s business is carryout and delivery.  However, it was tricky to find a reusable container that could stand up to the Tiffin’s sauces, which come off the stove at temperatures of up to 190 degrees.

Eventually, suitable containers were sourced, and then came the next challenge: keeping track of them.  Narula explains the reusable container program was integrated into Tiffin’s preexisting online ordering system.  When a customer places an online order and checks out, they’re asked if they want a reusable container.  If so, a QR code is generated when the order is printed, and scanning that unique QR code lets the restaurant know when the container leaves and when it’s returned. 

Customers have four weeks to return their containers to one of Tiffin’s locations, and friendly reminders are sent as the deadline approaches.

“Our customers have been phenomenal,” says Narula.  “We hardly ever have to wait four weeks. People [who are] using it love the program, and they want it to succeed.”

For restaurants that don’t have the existing infrastructure to track containers, Forever Ware offers a starter kit that includes reusable cups, a check out device, a return station, a window sticker, and a countertop display.  “Forever Ware is the first standalone reuse system,” says Gaffer.  “Businesses can visit our website, order a kit, and quickly get up and running anywhere in the U.S.”

In addition to the environmental benefits, Gaffer says that consumers love the overall reusable product experience: the company’s metal containers keep beverages and food hot or cold during transit, and there’s a psychological perception that food in reusable containers tastes better.  There’s also what she calls the “stickiness” factor: people are more likely to be repeat customers when they have to return to the restaurant to drop off their containers.

Narula has observed a similar loyalty among Tiffin’s customers.  Occasionally, the restaurants run out of reusable containers and have to put a temporary pause on offering them.  “In one of our restaurants a couple of weeks ago, a gentleman showed up with a bag of our reusable containers—he had tried to order twice, but we didn’t have reusable containers.  He said, ‘Wash these, and put food back in the same containers.’  That’s how passionate people are!”

Currently, about 20-22% of Tiffin’s orders utilize reusable containers, and the chain recently ordered a large quantity of new containers to keep up with demand—a capital investment Narula is willing to make.

“The biggest impact [of our reusable container program] is the perception of the company overall—the brand image has improved and also, the sales have increased.  I couldn’t quantify that all of the increase is because of the reusable containers, but when a significant event happens and sales go up, you have to say that’s a big reason.”

For sustainability-focused restaurants, reusable takeout containers are a natural fit.  However, Sweeney says that reusable options are being adopted industry-wide.  “One of the takeaways from the past couple of years is that it’s all kinds of restaurants [who are interested in reusable containers],” she says.  “We work with every kind of takeout restaurant New York City has to offer, and we have everything here!"

“Look into the economics of it,” she continues.  “Reuse should always be cost competitive or less expensive than single use.  One of the barriers we do sometimes come up against on the merchant side, when you come in with a sustainable solution, people say, ‘I don’t want to spend more money.’  You shouldn’t be spending money, you should be saving money or making additional revenue.” 

She says that 85% of Deliver Zero customers have ordered from restaurants that they haven’t before, and the container return rate is 98%.

That tracks with Narula’s experience.  “People really will come out and reward you.  There are a hundred Indian restaurants in Philly.  If this is the only Indian restaurant doing [reusable takeout containers], it’s a huge advantage.”

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