How consumers define “convenience” has evolved rapidly in recent years, and those changes have benefited the retail foodservice grab ‘n go category and the packaging manufacturers that supply it.

“Lives are so busy, people can’t even wait for it to be prepared in the store,” says Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute.  “That’s why we’re seeing grab ‘n go more and more.”

As volumes of grab ‘n go packaging increase, retailers and their suppliers are becoming more sophisticated about what consumers want, Dyer says. “In years past, maybe they went for the cheapest option,” she says. “Now, retailers are seeing more and more that good packaging can drive sales.”

Packs must be tamper-evident. Consumers want to see as much of the product as possible before they decide to buy it, so packaging clarity is essential. Shelf life is also increasingly a concern, Dyer says. For example, should a sandwich be packaged without condiments to help extend its life? Many consumers are also interested in packaging that educates, with information about calorie counts, food safety and other topics printed right on the pack. They also want the packaging to reflect their lifestyle, Dyer says. For example, if they’re eating more healthfully, they also want a “healthier” pack, e.g. something recyclable.

Dyer says grab ‘n go packaging makers also are spending more time on questions like “How should the pack be presented on the shelf?” The topic came up in a recent webinar sponsored by the Foodservice Packaging Institute. “It’s something I hadn’t really thought about,” Dyer says. “How is the pack seen if it’s on the top shelf, the lower shelf or straight-on?” Packs on the top shelf, for instance, may need labeling on the side if customers can’t see the package’s top.  

Almost all the stock food packaging product lines made by Fitchburg, Wisconsin-based thermoformed plastic packaging specialist Placon Corp. can be used for grab ‘n go applications, says Ben Brummerhop, the company’s stock food sales manager.

That’s a good thing, he says, given the robust growth in the category. “Both the grab ‘n go and snack-sized packaging categories are growing. Accessibility and portability are key. Consumers are busy and need freshly prepared food available at all times for their convenience.”

Sarah Hobson, product manager for Shelton, Connecticut-based Inline Plastics Corp., agrees. “Grab ‘n Go is a growing category for all players in the market, as consumers’ lifestyles are changing,” she says. “Preparing meals isn’t the same as it used to be. We’re looking for a quick bite and too often do not have the time to sit down and really enjoy a meal. With that, we are constantly looking for new ways to present foods in a fresh, appealing way to drive sales for our customers.”

The latest addition to Inline’s grab ‘n go line, Hobson says, is a kit that holds more than a dozen different Inline Safe-T-Fresh tamper-evident containers. The kit includes SnackCups, sandwich containers, Hangables (perfect for impulse buys, Hobson says), smaller bowls (for salads and other applications) and a variety of SnackWare multi-compartment containers.

In addition, Inline’s recently launched range of small Safe-T-Fresh PagodaWare packs, ranging in size from 8 to 16 oz, are perfect for grab ‘n go, Hobson says. All of Inline’s grab ‘n go items, she says, have a highly recognizable “family” look, and all feature the company’s Safe-T-Fresh tamper-evident, tamper-resistant and leak-resistant technology.

Grab ‘n go is so hot, Hobson says, it’s the focus of Inline’s 2018 product development plan. “We currently have additional items in development addressing this specific market, most of which will launch mid-year,” she says.

Convenience, smaller households drive demand 

Two Placon lines in particular — Fresh ‘N Clear GoCubes and Crystal Seal reFresh and Tamper Evident — translate well to the grab ‘n go category, which has evolved over the years as consumer needs have changed, Brummerhop says. Take shrinking household sizes, for instance. “Placon has always focused on a full line of standard offerings for family serve, catering, traditional deli, etc.,” he says. “Recently, our focus has shifted to single-serve product line offerings to provide better options for freshly prepared foods for the individual in grab ‘n go environments including convenience stores, quick-stop restaurants, and airport kiosks.”

Placon also has tweaked its product roster to meet demand for multi-compartment packaging, Brummerhop says. Multi-compartment, he says, helps ensure consistent portion sizing, spotlights specific ingredients and keeps food looking better and tasting fresh longer.

Tamper-evident is another trend Placon has addressed with new pack options. Dyer says the demand for tamper-evident has especially picked up in the past couple of years.

The list of foods that can be packed in grab ‘n go packs from Placon are basically endless, Brummerhop says, but some of the popular retail foodservice grab ‘n go items include salads with toppings, entrees and fresh-prepared full meals. “Our food packaging containers give the merchandiser or chef unlimited options to create exciting, delicious and nourishing snacks, light fare, or hearty meals for consumers and families with time-crunched schedules,” he says.

One of Placon’s most recent innovations is a perfect fit for retail foodservice. The HomeFresh Entrée hot food product line, made with microwave-friendly polypropylene, adds diversity to the company’s product roster, Brummerhop says. “We can now do hot and cold preparation in these containers designed for entire-meal convenience and functionality.”

On tap for Placon this spring, meanwhile, is a new line of snack-sized packaging. The line will include four different configurations and ounce capacities for easy customization, Brummerhop says.

Suppliers are introducing new grab ‘n go pack options for retail “all the time,” Dyer says. And retail foodservice has become such a growth industry for suppliers whose focus in the past has been traditional foodservice, the Foodservice Packaging Institute offers free membership to grocery and c-store retailers, she says.    

Multi-compartment is one of the hot trends when it comes to new products, Dyer says. Increased use of bento boxes is one example of this trend. An archetypal example from the recent past, she says, is the yogurt parfait container, where the granola is stored in the lid, separate from the yogurt, to keep it from getting soggy. Another recent success, she says, is packs with compartments for both dips and the vegetables, crackers or other items that go with them. “People don’t want to go down one aisle for the dip and another aisle for the veggie,” she says.    

One of the ways Placon differentiates itself from its competitors, Brummerhop says, is by leading the way on production of sustainable containers. Placon containers are made with the company’s EcoStar-branded, United States Food and Drug Administration-approved, food grade-recycled PET material. After they’re used, Brummerhop says, Placon’s containers are 100 percent recyclable.

In general, three goals that Placon has always strived for in the past will continue to prove the company with a competitive edge going forward, Brummerhop says: superior design, secure seals and exceptional clarity.