Recent data has shown that many Americans are purchasing food to go more often. Therefore the stakes are high when it comes to capturing a greater share of harried consumers’ stomachs. The big question for any chain or concept seeking to get in on—or get more of—the grab-and-go pie is, “How do I differentiate my offerings from those of my competitors?”

It’s the right question to ask, given that the grab-and-go subset of any chain’s menu is no less sensitive to consumer demands and needs, and every bit as subject to marketing and demographic challenges as a restaurant’s full offerings.

Here are a few suggestions for techniques and focus areas that can elevate your take-away business.

Give grab-and-go a signature touch

How does a consumer in an airport—an object lesson in the conditions that drive grab-and-go transactions—choose one kiosk or refrigerated case over another? Today, there’s a predictable set of choices: yogurt parfaits; fresh fruit cups; protein trays consisting of cheese, nuts, and apple slices; hummus dips; bags of chips; carry-out sandwiches; and ready-to-drink beverages. Concepts seeking an edge in this sort of environment therefore need to compete with distinctive offerings that further their brands’ reach and appeal.

Quick-serve chains noted for particular types of condiments or seasoning mixtures can shake things up by providing custom blends to complement whatever’s being grabbed. Taco Bell has taken this practice to an exciting new level with its own brand of tortilla chips made with seasonings (and packaging) reminiscent of its signature fire, mild, and classic hot sauce packets. At Starbucks, the chain’s line of Doubleshot bottled and ready-to-drink coffee-based beverages includes varieties such as Energy Mexican Mocha, Energy White Chocolate, Espresso Cubano, and Protein Caramel. Sonic, meanwhile, has taken the bold step of turning its signature beverages into frozen treats suitable for carrying away.

In addition, while no soup-and-salad concept I’m aware of has yet attempted to make it easier for diners to take a bit of their experience with them, it’s not hard to imagine an enterprising chain devising cubes of gelatin, concentrated meat stock, or a kind of liquid bouillon cube that could be mixed with hot water at any time to create a quick cup of soup.

Appeal to millennials’ social conscience

A recent survey conducted by the Culinary Visions Panel, a Chicago-based marketing firm, found that 64 percent of millennial consumers believe there is a shortage of ethical grab-and-go options, and 67 percent said they’d be willing to pay more for ethically produced food they can grab on the go. For those of us who may never have considered their take-away meal or snack options in an ethical light, this is an interesting pair of statistics.

What’s to be done to make one’s grab-and-go options more sustainable, less wasteful, more conscientious, and more socially beneficial? Clearly, the trend toward plant-based proteins is only beginning to show its full promise, with meat and dairy alternatives exploding; menu items that can boast of being “plant-powered” may therefore find themselves more popular than they might otherwise be.

But in addition to using fresh, locally sourced, and possibly non-GMO produce; “upcycling” ugly fruits and vegetables to avoid excessive food waste; and opting for environmentally friendly packaging materials, companies can make waves with the places where their wares are sold. A particularly high-profile example is McDonald’s new flagship store in Chicago, which aims to showcase the chain’s commitment to sustainable, environmentally friendly business practices with a 19,000-square-foot space housing 70 trees at ground level, floor-to-ceiling windows, and solar panels. The ethos of sustainability and shared responsibility for the environment is unmistakable, though other chains don’t need to go quite that far to cement their reputation as a principled business worthy of millennials’ patronage.

New tools for making food portable

We’re seeing these days an increasing number of outlets offering recyclable jars containing vertically stacked salads that can be shaken with dressing and eaten with a fork. They not only look cool and offer a kind of transparency that ingredient-conscious consumers appreciate, but they’re also a genuinely practical way to eat well on the go.

Another treatment that we at CCD Innovation have seen work beautifully is a salad “cake,” consisting of a savory rye bread “cake” base, layered with cream cheese or aquafaba (essentially the leftover liquid from cans of garbanzo beans, whipped until it takes on a creamy texture), all topped with hummus, cooked vegetables, salad greens, and cut into wedges. This was an ingenious translation that won big accolades from our tasting team.

Marc Halperin: Resident F&B Expert, Menu Innovations, Story