A number of years ago, my company was approached with a potential opportunity: to provide design and consulting for a redesign of all the “not to be named” quick-service restaurant packaging components. The original scope was structural and brand design application. What we came back with was a completely new way of looking at how every piece could be recycled in-store, and the best part: every piece was made from one material, PETE. The sandwich boxes, bags, cups, lids, straws, forks, spoons, plates/trays, French fry containers … everything PETE (Some would even be 50–100 percent recycled content).
The various material forms also added structural and insulating benefits, and overall packaging functionality was improved. The only trash waste would be the food scraps. This single-material concept also made it easier for the restaurant chain to set up a single-stream recycling process: in theory, all materials could be collected and recycled without sorting.
Unfortunately, the project never came to fruition, but the intent was revolutionary—quick-service restaurants strongly need to upgrade packaging to meet consumer preferences in today’s 2023 culture. And the sector is listening. Juggernauts like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King are all making strides forward to make sustainability more attainable. But more on that later.
Let’s face it, quick-service restaurants, to-go orders at formerly dine-in only restaurants, and catering orders are becoming major influencers on foodservice packaging trends. The outlandish growth of digital capabilities, coupled with ever-evolving meal options and preferences (especially after the pandemic), have led to a meteoric rise in dining options. Let’s look at the numbers.
By the Numbers
The quick-service restaurant market share is expected to increase $119.2 billion by 2025. Factors like shopper preferences for eating out, brand loyalty, and access to new restaurants and cuisines are driving growth for innovation in a subset of quick service—foodservice packaging.
Nearly 225 million Americans are projected to use disposable foodservice packaging in 2023. According to a report by Mordor Intelligence, the foodservice packaging market, valued at $114.28 billion in 2021, is expected to reach $148.25 billion by 2027.
The sheer volume of packaging materials in quick service is propelling manufacturers, foodservice providers, and shoppers to consider not only cost, form and function; but environmental impact as well.
The foodservice industry is a significant part of consumer spending.
As this trend increases, the packaging sector will play a crucial role in ensuring food safety and convenience for consumers. For instance, proper packaging and labeling allow food preparers to know the food source, its correct holding temperature, and the necessary cooking requirements. The packaging in this sector needs to not only entice shoppers to eat the food but communicate to them and the food workers what is in the packaging.
In addition, quick-service restaurants need to consider travel times for their food. With the rise in delivery services like GrubHub and UberEats, food will likely sit in its packaging for more than 30 minutes before delivery. The packaging must be sturdy enough to withstand the lengthy travel time while keeping hot food hot and cold food cold.
Second, the packaging must be leak-proof. Takeout and delivery orders that end up with leaks provide an unsavory experience for the customer that leaves them more likely to opt for another restaurant moving forward.
Third, the packaging needs to be sturdy enough to prevent a soggy mess. Just as with leaks, packaging that allows food to soak through the container conveys to the customer that the food itself is also subpar. Lots to consider.
2023 brought design trends that have permeated every packaging category, including quick service. Let’s take a look.
2023 design trends in packaging
- Bold Fonts/Shapes: Using typography as the centerpiece is hot. A burst of color, pattern, and things that don’t quite go together but somehow work. McDonald’s is a great example:
- Minimalism: This trend is being seen across all types of products; everything from perfume to dairy, to sweets & snacks. Minimalist packaging design is a great way to communicate better with consumers at retail. It stands out on the shelf and says, “this is quality.” McDonald’s hits the mark again. This not only says the chain is doing something new; it implies “quality.”
- 60s meets the 90s: This is simply a way of saying “everything once old is new again … and again … and again.” From Nirvana-inspired fonts to designs that look straight out of Haight-Ashbury, the rock and roll ethos of boldness with ideology is back in a big way. Here is great hippy style to-go packaging from Burger King, who openly shared their brand redesign, trademarks and all:
- Everything is a QR code away: It’s all about connectivity. QR codes allow brands to invite consumers into their world, whether it’s how to use a product to its best effect, or to explore social media channels. QR codes can take consumers to video content, animation, and promotions in ways never imagined.
QR codes gained enormous strides in the quick-service realm during COVID, when restaurants had to pivot to people-less serving and almost all menus became QR-code enabled.
Now, they’ve integrated every aspect of foodservice operations. From mobile ordering and payment to promotions and tracking, QR codes take people pretty much out of the equation.
Earth Friendlier Than Ever: It still remains today that the majority of single-use plastic food service products used in restaurants include rigid polystyrene (PS), expanded polystyrene (EPS), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and polylactic acid (PLA). Eco-friendly packaging is moving into a place of authentic ethical and biodegradable options, which shows a brand’s commitment to a sustainable future. Non-recyclable plastics are out as brands shift to more biodegradable options. These include:
- Paper and cardboard
- Compostable packaging
- Edible straws and seaweed-based packaging
Here’s what to expect from quick-service brands as sustainability continues to dominate. A plethora of corporate commitments in recyclability, compostability, and reusable packaging options. Corporate juggernauts have already made such commitments, like this one from Burger King, a similar one from McDonald’s, and another similar commitment from Wendy’s.
Other important trends include certifications that support the social and environmental commitments the brand supports, cause-based marketing, and the emphasis on “locally sourced.”
- Renewable: sugarcane based takeout bowls.
Mr. Reality Check Time
This one seems obvious, so here goes nothing: who is keeping these corporations accountable for these lofty declarations? All these corporations have taken an almost vengeful approach to limiting plastic use by certain dates, but what happens when that date comes and goes? And who remembers the “Save the trees” campaign and when the whole world was told that trees are not a renewable resource. Everything evolved from paper to plastic and now we’re going back. Sometimes it feels like we are going in circles and what is old is new again … retro sustainability.
Tom Newmaster has 30-plus years of experience in CPG branding and package design. From 1998 to 2016, he led creative and won awards for The Hershey Company, Pfizer, Stoner Car Care, and Zippo. He has helped launch new products across multiple categories including fresh produce, frozen food, confectionery, household cleaning, and nutritional supplements, to name a few. In 2017, Tom started FORCEpkg to take branding, design & innovation to the next level, and he has become a leading voice in the branding & packaging industry, writing for top trade and mainstream business publications. Known as “Mr. Reality Check,” Tom has become a unique voice for his industry. Calling out the truths in popular narratives, Tom tackles everything from packaging trends and sustainability to packaging’s role in pollution and praising innovators.