KANSAS CITY, MO. - Before COVID-19, grab and go packaging was a great choice for consumers eating on the run, or those jumping in on the growing meal kit trend, said Paul Frantz, chief commercial officer for Covington, Ky.-based Novolex.

“People want to eat fresh, healthy food even when they’re in a hurry, and our products offer customers high-quality and portable options that are also sustainable,” Frantz said.

 Now, during the pandemic, the industry is seeing significant current and projected growth for grab and go packaging, as many people are avoiding extra trips to the grocery store and are relying on curbside grocery pickup or meal kit deliveries.

The grab and go market has experienced an upward trajectory over the past few years, Frantz said.

“Grab and go packaging offers people an alternative to highly processed snacks and meals and the option to eat high quality, fresh food at their convenience,” he said.

Even before COVID-19, he added, online ordering, curbside service and delivery were growing rapidly as customers demand quick and hassle-free options.

The packaging industry and the food industry are in a unique moment, both in the United States and around the world, Frantz said. Out of necessity Americans are eating at home more than ever. But eating at home is different than cooking at home.

“For most of us, cooking every meal at home is a bit overwhelming,” he said. “And freshly prepared foods are a great option, and our business increase reflects this focus.”

From C-Thru Window bags that display freshly baked cookies, to clear clamshells for just made croissants, or its Blaze packaging, which is perfect for hot food prepared meals, Frantz said Novolex is able to meet the market’s changing demands.

Packaging for on-the-go consumers

The Falls Church, Va.-based Foodservice Packaging Institute has definitely seen an increase in the use of grab and go packaging over the past several years, said Natha Dempsey, the group’s president. 

Customers look to grab and go items as portable and convenient, she said. And with more and more people being on the move while consuming meals, traditional dayparts spreading out across 24 hours (i.e. snacks or late night “fourth meals”; all day breakfast items) and traditional foodservice locations shifting – think about consumers who make a grocery store or convenience store their lunch stop - it makes sense grab and go packaging has been on the rise. 

“With our current circumstances, I believe grab and go will remain in demand,” Dempsey said. “In particular, grab and go packaging that offers tamper evident or safety features that can reassure a customer that their prepared food hasn’t been altered or handled since it was made.” 

Dempsey points out that there are now points in grocery stores where self-serve is no longer an option — many instore bakeries, for example.  Instead of a shopper selecting a single bagel or donut from a bin, the alternative now might be a case filled with grab and go packaged versions of those items.

“It will be interesting to see what direction other points of self-service will go – buffets, hot bars, salad bars.  Right now, I think retailers and operators are willing to experiment - expanding grab and go offerings could be one of those alternatives that develops.”

In the hot deli category, items like rotisserie chickens had already enjoyed popularity pre-pandemic, Dempsey said.  Those products are often packaged in a larger, grab and go style container, so busy families could enjoy a prepared meal quickly. 

“While looming soccer practice or long commutes might not be present in our pandemic environment, the family meal certainly hasn’t gone anywhere,” she said. “In fact, throughout the pandemic, we have seen restaurants turn to offering more family style meals.  Some of these are ‘take and bake’ in nature, others fully prepared in advance.  These have been very well received by consumers and I understand many restaurants are currently planning to continue these post-pandemic.”

Coronavirus spurs demand

Demand for grab and go packaging has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic – in fact, Frantz said, Novolex has seen a dramatic increase in demand since March.

“Today’s demand is driven by consumers’ number one priority, safety, and that’s a trend we expect will become a way of life in a post-COVID world,” he said. “Right now, grab and go style dining – whether it’s for portable sandwiches or food that you would typically pick up at the hot bar from the supermarket, is simply the safest and most hygienic option for grocery stores that want to continue offering easy meal solutions.”

People remain hesitant to eat out, Frantz said — they want the convenience of portability with as minimal exposure as possible.

Pre-COVID, more than 50% of all food dollars were spent outside the home. Today, however, Frantz said, everything has shifted towards grocery.

“If supermarkets find a way to provide consumers the safety and convenience they’re expecting, there is definitely a chance for hot deli to rebound because it offers a tasty alternative to having to prepare a meal from scratch at home.”

Grab and go meals, Frantz added, provide customers with the security they need right now. They know, he said, that their food has not been touched by any other customers, that the food is not exposed to open air and that the staff packaging their food did so safely, with gloves and a mask on.

As demand for grab and go products continues to grow, Novolex will continue to innovate to ensure that its packaging not only helps consumers stay safe, but that it keeps food keep its flavor and maintain freshness, Frantz said.

“For us, while this time has been challenging and some areas of our business have been impacted, this is also an opportunity to innovate and figure out how we can pivot our business so that we can customers can use our products and feel safe and secure about how they are eating again.”

Visibility to the fore

In July Inline Plastics rolled out a revamped version of its Rectangles line of Safe-T-Fresh products.

The containers now feature smooth walls with a contemporary shape, designed to catch consumers’ eyes, in a single-piece clamshell. The retooling of the popular line came in response to increased market demand for greater visibility to the contents. 

“The appealing unobstructed view and alluring curves provides exceptional clarity, creating attractive showcases which allow the contents to take center stage,” according to Inline.

The new design retains all the advanced product features of the original Safe-T-Fresh® line, including:

  • Patented Safe-T-Fresh tamper evident/tamper resistant technology
  • Industry-leading leak resistance
  • 100% recyclable; #1 recycled material accepted by all curbside recycling bins.
  • Processor friendly and automation compatible
  • Made in the USA

In addition, the redesigned Safe-T-Fresh Rectangles are produced with energy efficient Reborn™ rDPET, a high-performing food-grade packaging material containing 10% post-consumer recycled content. Production has begun on both the medium and large Rectangle options (TS20, TS24, TS32, TS48 &TS64).  The smaller sizes (TS6, TS8, TS12 and TS16) will follow later in the year.

“Following our March announcement of Reborn, we’re excited to share yet another product innovation with our customers, the all-new Safe-T-Fresh Rectangles,” said Tom Orkisz, Inline’s chairman and CEO. “Inline Plastics transformed the marketplace as the first manufacturer to develop the Safe-T-Fresh tear-strip technology for greater product protection. Now, we are building on that legacy of innovation by creating a new modern design, single piece clamshell that provides customers with enhanced product display and showcasing capabilities. Moreover, in this era of heightened awareness and focus on food quality and safety, we are excited to empower retailers with a clear choice in packaging and consumers with a better shopping experience.”

This story was featured in the September edition of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here to view the whole issue