Think Inside the Box.

These are unprecedented times and the current environment is undoubtedly high risk for quick-service restaurants. Many smaller stores are suffering, while even perceived giants like Yum! Brands have announced major store closures. The good news: customers are embracing drive-thru, curbside pickup, and app-based, third-party delivery services for a familiar, convenient, and affordable meal.

In uncertain times, controlling costs is of critical importance. Cooking oil, widely considered a chain’s most expensive ingredient, is a great place to start since, unlike really any other equipment or food that flows through the store, operators are faced with an upfront decision as it relates to fryer oil: is my cooking oil to be a fixed cost like contract bulk oil, or a variable cost, one that can be adjusted based on demand such is the case with the purchase of boxed oil.

To help with the decision, a little history might be helpful.

A Little Oil History

A generation ago, a booming new concept shook up the staid cooking oil sector. The concept embraced automation and bulk purchasing, two pretty alluring features at the time. The idea was simple: instead of packaged oil bought in boxes alongside ketchup and other foodstuffs via traditional distribution, bulk cooking oil would be delivered to a restaurant site and pumped into a tank. Later, waste oil from the fryer was sent to a second tank for pickup by the same company. All of this for a monthly fee.

At the time, restaurateurs were concerned about the “increase in operating costs” of this new rental model. But the more efficient oil management tended to balance out the higher costs.

Now, a generation later, it’s worth looking at cooking oil again.

As the service models have found more balance—and the proximity to a vendor, quality, and shelf life of bulk fresh oil has come under more scrutiny—has the cooking oil category done another 180?

Packaged cooking oil is the cornerstone ingredient for the QSR customer. Food service operators should take a closer look at boxed oil, because benefits exist that they might not be aware of,” said Tom Kerstetter, Sr. Director of Food Service Sales with Ring Container Technologies, a leading manufacturer of bottle-in-box edible-oil packaging under the brand of Ultra35®.

What’s the difference?

When the shift to bulk oil was the rage in the early 2000s, there was much discussion about benefits.

“Oil is an emotional issue for operators; it’s critical to their flavor profiles. Foregoing quality and taste is not acceptable,” explained Kerstetter, “But the inherent automation and the simplicity of the bulk model—somewhat similar to renting versus owning—gave bulk a push early on. But,” he continued, “boxed oil offers three main benefits to operators that bulk oil cannot, and those benefits exist simply because of the scale and nature of the two models.”

Benefits of the Bottle in a Box

1. Superior choice

There is a wide selection of oil types available in boxes, estimated at well over 100, including heart-healthy options that are very popular with diners. The list is as numerous as apples in the produce section, and each has a unique flavor to impart to the different chains’ fried foods. Olive oil, palm oil, soybean oil, and other vegetable oils, as well as animal-based oils like butter and lard—each with scores of varieties within the classifications—create an abundance of choices that makes it easy for everyone to profess that the best chicken within 200 miles is made in their own restaurant.

Being able to choose the right oil at the right price is unique to the boxed oil concept. “By comparison, bulk oil programs usually only provide two to four choices,” said Kerstetter, and he noted that total traceability is critical to confirming your choice. “The side of your oil box will tell you the type of oil it contains, who made it, and its expiration date. Bulk oil is somewhat of a mystery and offers less variety, flexibility, and choices for the operators.”

2. Ultimate freshness

Oxygen breaks down oil. The bulk oil in your tank was first exposed to oxygen days or weeks ago when it first left the rail car that delivered it to the processing depot. “On the other hand, boxed oil isn’t openly exposed to oxygen until you remove the seal immediately prior to use,” explained Kerstetter. “It is at the peak of freshness from the first pour.”

3. Wider availability

Let’s not forget that bulk oil isn’t even an option for many restaurants. Delivery eligibility drops significantly the farther away a restaurant is from a bulk oil distribution hub, which are typically located in large metropolitan areas. The tanker that pumps oil at a major chain in midtown can’t reach middle-America for the same price. The further you travel from the hub, the more expensive the oil becomes, until, eventually, in very remote, rural locations, bulk oil is just simply not available at all. Finally, only packaged oil can be bought and shipped globally, allowing consistency as chains have broadened their global footprints.

Boxed oil by contrast, is widely available to all foodservice environments, regardless of location.

Despite the inherent benefits of boxed oil, there remained two differences bulk oil providers held over packaged oil, explains Kerstetter. “First, there’s recyclability—with bulk delivery models, there is no plastic or corrugated to recycle or dispose of, and, secondly, there remains the hurdle of automation.”

Ring Container looked to itself to improve the recyclability of their product, focusing on the Ultra35® bottle-in-box’s two intermingled components—the HDPE bottle and the corrugated box. Today, Ring’s Ultra35® bottle-in-box is easily taken apart so the inner bottle can be recycled with plastics and the outer box with cardboard.

“The current Ultra35® bottle in a box has been significantly improved from earlier iterations when the components were more difficult to separate. Now it’s much easier for operators to manage their waste versus throwing the entire package into the trash,” explained Kerstetter. “The current box design, when introduced, was a green solution that didn’t add to costs—precisely what our product development engineers set out to do.”

The Last hurdle: safety through automation

Removing the manual handling of oil from employees offers protection to them—and to ownership. A staggering 60% of Workers’ Compensation claims in kitchens are related to oil, whether due to burns or to slips and falls.

That’s where Frontline International entered the scene.

Frontline, founded in 2000 as a manufacturer of smart oil management equipment solutions, began making waste oil tanks, grew steadily, and later introduced fresh oil tanks to their product lineup. But as a traditional foodservice equipment manufacturer not interested in the monthly fee-for-service model dominating bulk delivery at the time, they found manufacturing bulk fresh oil tanks short on powerful differentiation in the market.

They applied their engineering acumen and, in 2012, launched the EZ Oil® Fresh Oil Dispensing System.

“Our EZ Oil® system turns boxed oil into an automated commodity,” said Giovanni Brienza, senior vice president of Frontline International. “Users stack fresh oil boxes on a storage rack, which is plumbed to the fryers. There are 350 pounds of oil always ready to flow to the fryer, just like turning on the faucet.”

No one touches the oil, helping to ensure safety. And the system allows restaurateurs to recapture the key benefit lost to bulk oil—namely, a fresher ingredient—which the restaurant owner can now shop for on the basis of quality and cost considerations.

“Our EZ Oil helps chain customers achieve consistency across broad global geographies. We can ensure that with our boxed oil system, the same consistency and quality can be achieved everywhere, whether it’s a store in Paris, Maine, or in Paris, France,” said Brienza. “That’s a big deal and a big change in the argument.”

And it’s some pretty fresh thinking—inside the box.

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