Grab-and-go items, once a staple of nontraditional spaces like college campuses and airports, have gone mainstream.

Today, operations ranging from convenience stores to standalone quick-service restaurants are adding prepackaged items like fresh carrots with ranch dip, pre-made chicken wraps, or yogurt parfaits. And they’re doing so for a good reason: Every day, 28 million Americans eat a grab-and-go snack, according to data from consumer market research firm The NPD Group.

Those numbers are driving a change not only in the preparation of on-the-go foods so popular in nontraditional locations, but also in packaging. Brands are quickly innovating the way they present these items to keep up with consumers’ desire for mobility, healthy eating, green living, and personalization.

“The consumer is just time crunched, and they continue to be more time crunched than in the past,” says Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute. “We’ve seen the move from the sit-down to the quick-serve restaurant to … where you don’t even have to go in and order.”

As restaurants and retailers continue to add pre-made offerings, packaging becomes critical, Dyer adds. In a traditional quick-serve restaurant, choices are displayed on big menuboards. But with prepackaged foods, the product itself is the display, so it has to look appetizing and include nutritional information and instructions for preparation.

In some cases, food packaging is a brand’s only chance to send a message to the consumer, she says. So the clamshell or the foam cup has to be more than utilitarian.

In recent years, quick-serve brands have worked to make food and food containers more portable. Starbucks, for example, added several pre-made products, and McDonald’s rolled out new containers to make eating hand-held wraps easier. But there are also more nuanced shifts in the industry, and they’re driven by innovation from the nontraditional space, Dyer says.

She points to a recent in-flight sandwich she ate that was wrapped in plain brown paper with a piece of twine tied around it—a special, yet simple, touch that makes the food feel homemade. “Even something as simple as that could change the consumer’s entire perception of a meal,” she says. “And I can’t imagine that was that much more expensive.”

Packaging counts with customer perception, which is why several concessionaires in nontraditional venues are gussying up their paper and plastic.

Memphis-based Malco Theatres added more upscale wrapping across its 34 movie theaters—instead of foil bags for hotdogs, it uses clamshells; instead of wax paper for pretzels, it uses bakery-style boxes. The shift is designed to give consumers a perception of value, refuting the notion that concession stand food is sterile, says Malco senior vice president Larry Etter.

“Typically in our industry, we take a hit or we get comments about our value and how things are overpriced,” Etter says. “They compare our prices to grocery and drug stores. So we have to find a way to convince the consumer that what we’re doing has value. And I see that happening across the board.”

The changes to packaging have shown measurable results: Hot dog sales increased by 20 percent after Malco made the switch years ago, and pretzel sales saw a similar boost with the shift to the high-end bakery boxes about two years ago. Like other concessionaires, Etter says, Malco has added collector’s cups and popcorn tubs. Because they’re not disposable, customers are willing to pony up more, so what was once a $7 tub of popcorn can sell for $10, he says.

Traditional quick serves like KFC are taking note of these trends and their impact in nontraditional venues. The national chicken chain made a big play at portability with the introduction of its Go Cups, a patented cup designed to hold chicken items and fit inside most car cup holders.

The brand rolled out the new snack package after a company survey found more than half of car owners between ages 18 and 32 would be more likely to eat in their cars if the container could fit into a cup holder, says KFC spokesman Rick Maynard.

“Life has never been more hectic, and today’s on-the-go consumers are hungry for a better way to snack,” he says.

The cups, which sell for $2.49, have a divider for potato wedges and come with a choice of various chicken products. The Go Cups’ design allows most of the food to sit above the rim so customers don’t have to dig for their snack. Between its October 2013 launch and March 2014, KFC sold more than 20 million Go Cups, Maynard says.

Other brands, like 60-unit Toppers Pizza, see packaging as an opportunity to deliver a brand message, much in the same way many nontraditional operations create a perception of quality. The chain uses bright, whimsical pizza and wing boxes to convey its playful brand message, with comedic illustrations that highlight the brand’s fresh-made dough and use of Wisconsin cheese.

In a business dominated by delivery and carryout, the importance of the box can’t be understated, says Scott Iversen, the chain’s vice president of marketing. It touches every single customer, he says. Each box contains a small window for “words of wisdom from your personal pizza hero,” a space where employees will write a joke or sketch a funny picture, Iversen adds.

“It’s all about making that connection,” he says. “A lot of customers will never enter a Toppers Pizza store. We’re using our packaging to communicate those points of difference and trying to create that personal moment.”

This story previously misspelled Scott Iversen's name. QSR regrets the error.

Consumer Trends, Growth, Story, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Toppers Pizza