Dispatch Goods CEO and cofounder—and surfer—Lindsey Hoell was inspired to begin her reusable packaging company by a grim scene she encountered while living in Hawaii.
“We were in Kauai hiking to a pretty remote surf break, and when we got to the beach it looked like the sand was rainbow,” she says. “When I got closer, I realized it was microplastics. It was a really devastating moment. I realized we really needed to turn the faucet off in terms of creating plastics and pumping them out to consumers, because they are making their way back to our shorelines.”
Following this experience, Hoell, a former cardiovascular perfusionist, dove into the world of reusable packaging. After earning her MBA at the University of California Berkeley, she joined forces with Maia Tekle to found Dispatch Goods in 2019. The idea at the core of Dispatch Goods is to offer restaurants and other businesses a platform that they can easily plug into to swap their single-use products with sustainable, reusable alternatives.
Dispatch’s mostly steel and glass products are not merely additions to a brand’s packaging lineups, but replacements, and Hoell and Tekle are in the process of building a nationwide network for the implementation of reusables. Their goal is not to make the existing packaging industry more sustainable, but to disrupt it entirely.
“We want to create a world where dispatchable means something similar to recyclable,” Hoell says. “We have ambitions to completely change the way that we're doing business around packaging.”
The Dispatch operation centers on proprietary sanitation facilities that do the work of sterilizing reusables for partnering companies. Each Dispatch item has a QR code that consumers can scan to locate local Dispatch drop-off points, or guests can return their reusables to the restaurant where they dined, as restaurant partners have designated days for Dispatch to pickup items and process them for re-use. A “packaging agnostic” company, the Dispatch system can seamlessly accommodate items from restaurant partners who already have their own reusables in place. The company simply attaches QR codes to the restaurant’s existing items, and integrates these items into their pick-up system.
The company is bi-coastal, working with grocery chains and other companies that rely on packaging in the San Francisco Bay market as well as a set of East Coast markets between New York City and Washington D.C. As of now, its restaurant partners are limited to the San Francisco Bay area—Dispatch currently works with more than 60 restaurants in this market—but, since the infrastructure is already in place for non-foodservice partners on the East Coast, expansion to restaurants in these markets is on the docket for the near future.
When a restaurant expresses interest in becoming a Dispatch Goods partner, the Dispatch team evaluates its current packaging offerings, and then locates a suite of replacements from the Dispatch lineup. Once specific item needs and quantities are determined, the restaurant can schedule auto-delivery and pickup from Dispatch, taking out any legwork surrounding packaging on the part of the foodservice brand.
“From a business perspective, the process really is meant to be the same as switching vendors of single use products,” Hoell says.
While certain legacy partners maintain both single-use and Dispatch’s reusable options, the company now only partners with brands willing to make the switch entirely to reusables—a process that Hoell says is often simpler than attempting to maintain various packaging options, both in regards to ordering materials and to serving guests in fast-paced environments, such as fast casual concepts, where deciding between packaging options can cost employees valuable time. Switching to a domestic reusables supplier also avoids supply chain disruptions, a hurdle for operators surrounding not only ingredients, but also single-use packaging.
Furthermore, for brands already supplying costlier compostable (or otherwise more sustainable) single-use products for guests, switching to Dispatch can, at times, save on packaging costs, or at least present a circular option for the price operators are already spending on eco-conscious, disposable items. Plus, presenting customers with a reusable option has the potential to raise revenues on its own.
“There’s almost always, especially if the restaurant markets this to their customers, a pretty big surge in takeout orders once brands partner with us,” Hoell says. “You’ve alleviated the eco-guilt of your customers, which makes them want to support you. We've seen astonishing numbers in terms of how much takeout volume increases after launching.”
While a majority of Dispatch’s initial partners were full-service concepts, the brand is working towards a focus on quick-serve and fast-casual restaurant partners with new packaging that the company plans to introduce in Q4 of this year. This product is made of lightweight polypropylene that is specially tailored to fast-casual environments in its ability to nest and quickly separate from a stack.
The Dispatch goods model seems snag-free, aside from the unpredictability of customers; what happens when a diner does not return the reusable product? This is a loss for which Dispatch prepares. Rather than take a deposit from guests at the point-of-sale to ensure they return items—a strategy that might add friction to Dispatch’s rather simple system—the company uses past data from restaurant partners to estimate how many containers will go missing and builds that into an anticipated loss rate that informs the company’s product pricing structure. The brand is also working to make the production of its items more cost-efficient to offset any material loss.
However, all in all, Dispatch Goods presents a win for the environment, even when customers swipe a container. When a consumer takes a reusable home, they’re integrating that product into their own kitchen. And the gap of missing containers is overwhelmed by the amount of single-use product Dispatch has already saved from entering waste streams; in 2020 alone, the brand replaced over a million disposables. Plus, Hoell cites cooperative consumers eager for sustainable ways of dining out as numerous, key in Dispatch’s success.
“There are already a lot of different items in consumer’s hands that have that Dispatch Goods logo and QR code and, we’re going to continue building out a national infrastructure in order to enable a transition from linear waste stream into circular reuse stream,” she says. “And it's exciting to start with restaurants because of how high the demand is on both the operator and the consumer side.”