Food Movers: Can I Get That To Go?

Food Movers: Can I Get That To Go?

The pressure on food to perform has never been higher. For decades, pizza boxes, Styrofoam clamshells and the paper pails used for Chinese takeout each filled a specific niche in the restaurant industry. But during the delivery gold rush of the past 10 years, restaurants, food packaging manufacturers and customers are demanding more.

The original delivery foods (pizza, Chinese food, deli sandwiches and burgers, which became delivery staples in the 1960s and 1970s) don’t suffer in quality from the half-hour they might spend en route to your house. In contrast, many dishes offered today at casual eateries or fine-dining restaurants weren’t designed to be served in the insulated boxes of past decades.

Lynn Dyer, president of the Food Packaging Institute in Washington D.C., notices small changes: the tabs that make the containers easier to open, the discreet vents that allow steam to escape, the perfectly clear plastic that enables you to see your food before you open it.

Dyer says the innovation we’re seeing for 21st century delivery demands rivals the changes we saw during the fast-food drive-through boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Years ago, her industry group worked with auto companies to determine how many cupholders a car needed and what size they should be. Those measurements were originally used to design drinking cups, but now French fries, chicken nuggets and salads are packaged in cupholder-friendly containers.


Modern food packaging containers aim to create a “wow” moment for customers when they unpack their food. That’s why we are seeing Instagram-friendly logos, shapes, colors and clear plastic lids to show off the food, Dyer says.

We eat first with our eyes, but for chefs like Austin’s Rebecca Meeker, food quality is the top consideration. In her fine-dining days, she sent leftovers home in compostable containers. But today, every single food item from her company Lucky Lime is delivered. She needs containers that won’t get soggy and that will hold temperature so that when the food finally arrives, the customer will enjoy their dining experience as much as if they were in a restaurant — the packaging and flavors having fulfilled the website’s promises.

Safety is a concern, too — particularly when your delivery driver may not have a working tie to the restaurant. Manufacturers are working on tamper-evident packaging, such as a takeout bag with a tear strip on the top so a customer can see if someone has opened the bag since it left the restaurant.


Few restaurants start out with a plan to meet a growing demand for takeout. But in an increasingly cutthroat industry, many restaurateurs have little choice. Delivery adds expense and opportunity for error, but if a restaurant doesn’t offer its food to go, potential customers will go elsewhere to get it. Dyer says many restaurants consider packaging a small price to pay to make additional sales from people who aren’t sitting in their dining room.

“Foodservice operators want consumers to have the same experience as if they are in the restaurant,” Dyer says. “If they get the food delivered and it looks like a big mess, you don’t get the same experience.”


At Lucky Lime, Chef Meeker designed every dish with delivery in mind. For her delivery-only venture, Meeker developed healthy Asian-influenced dishes — with a French flair — that she knew would hold up during a car ride.

She prefers containers with clear tops (so customers can see the food) that seal securely so spills aren’t a problem. These days, one spilled container could mean a customer doesn’t come back, or worse: leaves a negative review about a delivery company that can’t deliver. But finding the perfect packaging can be a challenge.

“You want to highlight the food, but it adds expense,” Meeker says. She says she spends about $1 per order on packaging, often more if the delivery includes a drink in a plastic bottle.

Meeker uses about eight different containers for her limited menu delivered cold once a week. If she wants to add a hot menu, that’ll require a new set of packaging. Grease- and moisture-resistant compostable packaging has been around for about a decade, but some businesses prefer recyclable plastic, which can hold heat longer.

Meeker can’t order the compostable, molded fiber containers with the clear plastic tops that she’d really like to use because her sales are too small to meet the required minimum purchase of $750 every other week. For now, the recyclable containers she’s already using will have to do.

Some Like It Hot

More than 60 percent of Mama Fu’s business is to-go or delivery. Customers of this fast-casual Asian chain expect their food to still be hot when it arrives, and they want it in a reheatable container, says Director of Marketing Josh Churnick. The company, with two dozen locations in Texas, Arkansas and Florida, skipped the traditional paper pail and opted for bright red trays that customers can wash and reuse at home. “I hear from customers on a regular basis who have cabinets full of red containers.”

Don’t Cry for Me…

Don’t Cry for Me…

The machines, technology, and gears in our supply chain matter, but so do the soft parts of the system’s underbelly — the human beings that make the thing work.

During a recent visit with a meat processor and a pig farmer in Argentina, two men told me disarming stories. Their stories seemed more suited to pass between intimate friends than between us, having only known each other for a few hours. While the stories revealed how chorizo is made, they were far more eloquent commentaries about these men’s lives than about sausage or animal husbandry.

While we’re exploring the food supply chain, we’re often confronting machines, technology, and the gears of the equipment that moves boxes from one place to another. These gears matter, but so do the soft parts of the system’s underbelly — the human beings that make the thing work. Like the humans that work at Frigorifico San Jose on Darwin Street, on the fringes of Buenos Aires. In one moment, you watch a large meat grinder mince and mix meat for the sausage stuffers. In the next moment, you watch your host’s eyes brim with tears.

“In one moment, you watch a large meat grinder mince and mix meat for the sausage stuffers. In the next moment, you watch your host’s eyes brim with tears.”

Ruben works at the pork processing plant housed in two buildings located in Lomas del Mirador. A rancher named Pablo Pelluse bought the land where the meat processors would set up their businesses in 1868. During the Argentinian Civil Wars, the area was caught in the regional battle and became known for its support of the Federalists against the Unitarios in Buenos Aires, who wanted a strong, centralized government. By the end of the century, the Federalists had lost, and Buenos Aires governed the unified areas around the city.

"Meat Packers" Adolfo Bellocq

“Meat Packers” by Adolfo Bellocq, Wood Carving, 1922

Lomas del Mirador’s history runs along the same grain as the meat business in Buenos Aires. By the end of the 19th century, meat slaughtering had left its mark on the area as railways moved meat processing farther away from the city. The meat processing companies that had existed in the area replaced slaughterhouses and tallow factories and provided employment to the surge of immigrants, many from Italy, coming to live in Buenos Aires province during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A soap factory, Jabon Federal, scooped up tallow to make bars of soap, joining other meat-related businesses and helping the town take on an appearance similar to other cities now known for their close association with the meat packing industry. Chicagos of the Argentinian meat industry, Villa Madero and Lomas del Mirador are historical artifacts of the old meat supply chain. The pork processing plant that I visited is one of the vestiges of the old meat processing neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

Immigrants continue to occupy the area. Mario Klichinovich is the product manager and Ruben’s boss. Klichinovich is one family name you won’t find in Italy. Indications are that Mario’s family may have come from Austria after having fled Russia during the Jewish diaspora. Ruben is a food scientist by training and has spent 25 years working in the meatpacking business. He began working in food service through an internship while studying food “engineering,” the term used instead of food “science” in the U.S.

He led us to the chilled meat processing rooms to find a line of tables piled high with pig carcasses, mostly already cut into quarters and medium cuts. Workers hefted pig carcasses off the meat hooks inside a small truck that had been backed into the processing room. Occasional grunts revealed that this move took quite some physical effort.

Ruben’s team slices up a very small portion of Argentina’s pork production. Pig farmers have been increasing output by over 100 percent during the last decade, chasing a 60 percent increase in pork consumption. Exports of pork are also on the rise, in spite of Kirschner’s attempts to keep pork in Argentina.

His workers are bumping bags of pork, ham hocks, and trotters against each other, flashing sharp knives, and tossing offal into buckets beneath the tables. The working space is clean, constantly rinsed by water and cleaning fluids, but at some point Ruben will need more cutting tables and meat processors to deal with the increasing taste for Argentinian pork.

After watching the ad hoc choreography required to empty the small truck and prepare meat for processing, we wandered upstairs where the sausage takes shape. Workers in pristine whites, boots and hairnets, swung into action, sliding trays of cut-up pork meat into the jowls of the steel meat grinder. From out of a room containing buckets of spices come the seasonings that will be mixed into the ground pork, and steel tubs of ground pork become seasoned chorizo, some batches red, others not.

Meanwhile, on another stainless steel bench, workers slip the end of a pig intestine onto a sausage filler. A sausage stuffer opens the sausage casing, made in this case out of pig intestines, to enable the sausage meat to fill the tube created by the intestine. (I’ve tried to make sausage at home without a machine like this, and it’s a Laurel and Hardy experience however long you work at it.)

Ruben’s workers were slipping the stuffer into casing with lightening speed, inching up the casing while extruding pork mean into the tube as the next worker spun of lengths of string, tying the filled casing in increments of six to seven inches. No doubt this skill took hours of practice. Imagine the mistakes during the training period: sausages half tied-off, flinging loose sausage meat across the room.

Making sausage without a casing machine is a Laurel and Hardy experience no matter how long you work at it.

Back down in the cutting room, we saw the process begin over again. Moving into his office, Ruben explained that he needed to make a few calls to chase down payments and orders before driving us out into the countryside to visit one of his pig farmers. Along one counter, colorful plastic binders spoke of Ruben’s attempt to bring order to the chaos in the next room.

In the car during the three-hour drive to the pig producer, I got a chance to know Ruben outside of his meat processor demeanor. I asked about his family.

He replied, “It’s a sad story.” His eyes filled with tears as he drove on the highway and recounted how his wife passed away a week after giving birth to his two-year old daughter. His job, he confessed, was the only thing that held him together, providing one constant despite the tumult within his own life. Without warning, we were talking about his deep loss, about his love for his daughter, about his fears for her future, his insecurities as her only provider.

Who are these people, working the pork processing supply chain? Working the loading dock, counting cases on a pallet? People like Ruben.

Food Preservation: It’s in the Can

Food Preservation: It’s in the Can

Whether boxes, bags, or cans, food needs some sort of protection from the environment, and cans tell a story of multiple technologies, not all of which came together at the same time.

Nicholas Appert, a self-taught chemist who was a cook, chef, and confiseur in Paris experimented in his shop while the citizens of his city marched on Versailles over the price of bread. Times were tough if you were hungry and not the aristocracy.

Access to food was a concern for more than just the Parisians during the Revolution. When Napoleon began his sweep across Europe, he was aware that his army traveled on its stomach. So Napoleon challenged the citizens of France to come up with a way to make food last longer while the navy was at sea and his armies were assembling his empire. Appert responded with a way to sterilize food in glass bottles. His idea, he said, was a response to the general concern about over-consumption of sugar, which was used as a preservative. He saw his technique as a way to lessen the amount of sugar in preserved food. (Yes, that was in 1810. Our current concern about eating too much sugar apparently has a history of about 200 years.)

“When Napoleon began his sweep across Europe, he was aware that his army traveled on its stomach.”

Appert won the cash prize but not the patent. Almost at the moment he published his work, several British engineers and entrepreneurs scooped up the idea and received a patent, soon turning Appert’s invention from glass to tin.

Tin Can

Bryan Donkin’s tin can, based on Appert’s sterilization technique

Though Appert would die poor (no patent, no money), his discovery of sterilization as a way to preserve food was a foundational innovation. Cans and can production technologies followed as inventors experimented with heat, metal, and machinery to process food for longer durations before consumption. Of course, it wasn’t until 50 years after the can appeared that it became openable. The can opener didn’t arrive on the scene until 1866.

“Of course, it wasn’t until 50 years after the can appeared that it became openable.”

The idea of preserving food in tin cans attracted the attention of entrepreneurs in Britain and the U.S. during the Civil War. Like France, both sides of the American conflict wanted to feed their armies so they could remain in the field. Experiments for condensing food, like milk and soup, emerged as a way to package food without the additional liquid weight.

Food technologies that not only preserve food but also lessen its weight must relate in some way to the cost of transport. The connection between lighter food and lower fuel costs may have been an incentive for these early inventors.

There’s a lot more to explore about canning and other food packaging technologies. It’s intriguing to note that when canned food appeared, it became mysterious. Consumers began to demand labels and certification that would verify the contents of the can. The loss of transparency in the food supply chain may have begun with the tin can.

Waste Not

Waste Not

Food waste is a messy subject. What can one person’s efforts to record her scraps teach us about reducing our footprint?

Logi, a mythological Nordic warrior, won an medieval eating contest that involved consuming a tray of meat and bones — and the tray itself. (The tray was made of bread in those days, so it’s not such a big deal as it appears.) His gluttonous display was typical of the way men proved they were, indeed, men. The more food consumed, the more powerful the man.

For centuries, now, eating enormous quantities of food has been as necessary among the elite — who use consumption as a marker of social status — as it has been among the poor, who never know when the next famine will occur. The abundance or scarcity of food is one of the world’s paradoxes. We eat a lot, though not quite like Nordic warriors. And at the same time, we waste a lot.

Food waste tops the list of concerns for food system reformers these days. And why not? The UN Food and Agriculture Organization claims that we waste about 1.3 billion tons per year of edible parts of food, or about 4o percent of the food we produce. That’s enough to motivate anyone to reconsider what goes into the trash bin after a meal. The 2013 FAO report, “Food Wastage Footprint, Impacts On Natural Resources,” dissects the mountain of food waste generated each year. Perishable fruits and vegetables occupy much of that mountain for obvious reasons. In spite of advances in food preservation, we haven’t yet found the right technology for eliminating perishability.

“…we waste about 1.3 billion tons per year of edible parts of food, or about 4o percent of the food we produce…”

But before wringing our hands, we should wonder about what constitutes “food wastage,” as the FAO calls food waste. We hear about food waste in the media and at events that reference the same FAO report. As much a consequence of recirculating Internet data, this reliance on a single source can’t be our only source for the war on waste. If the topic is so fundamental to improving our food system, should we be evaluating a range of studies from multiple perspectives? Even without reading the UN report, we might wonder about packaging and about all the leaks along the food supply chain where food becomes waste. Did the FAO really go to a significant number of landfills and weigh all the different types of waste? Might there be other methods for finding food leaks and breaks the food distribution system?

The whole topic is messy. But even without knowing the exact amount of food waste in our food system, I imagine we’d all agree that the problem could use a big solution.

But overwhelming problems often numb our ability to act individually. Wondering what just one person might contribute to heap of wasted resources, I spent a week photographing my food wastage footprint. I became so self-conscious about my food waste that I began eating more trimmings and food before taking a photo, simply because I was embarrassed by the amount of waste that was about to become public record. Being shunned by one’s peers because of an oversized waste footprint could become the next neurosis requiring treatment by modern psychiatrists.

One day’s waste print.

While I worked to overcome the fear of disapproval, I saw that my food waste footprint had grown to the size of Sasquatch by the end of the week. This wasn’t a complete surprise, since the amount of food that I was required to buy in the grocery store was more than one person could eat in a week; remains of a head of lettuce and a quart of milk were all spoiled by the end of the week. Perhaps this is an admonition to never eat alone. More fun and less waste.

While my experiment wasn’t life-transforming, taking the photos did tell an interesting micro-story about one person’s waste footprint.

So what are the takeaways?

I wonder if there is a better way for single people to buy and prepare food. Would more single-serving packaging alleviate the problem? Lately I’ve noticed “Ready to Serve Brown and Wild Rice” from Riviana Foods in packages of two servings, ready to microwave. It might help, but packaging still needs a solution: even my single-serving yogurt leaves me with a foil top and plastic container at the end of the snack.

Would growing my own food lessen the amount of waste, since I could pick just what I needed for a meal and compost the remains each day? Maybe, but that would require a lifestyle change for many of us.

How about portion controls? When I ate out, the waste trail increased. Restaurants, unless you eat exclusively at over-priced, small-plate restaurants, typically serve more than you can eat. In my case, a sandwich was served with a side of coleslaw, which I don’t eat and didn’t see on the menu.

While my micro-experiment was both fun and enlightening, the exercise missed some of the bigger-picture considerations. How can we see beyond the FAO report? Bjorn Lomborg joins the United Nations Food and Agriculture to emphasize the amount of food wasted in the global food system. Lomborg moves beyond the statistic to consider systemic solutions, such as the need for improvements in our global transportation infrastructure. Ronald Bailey’s book The End of Doom points out that we have a highly productive food system that will produce enough food in the future. There’s enough food, it seems, just in the wrong places.

So how do we get all the food to all the right places in the right condition: unspoiled, nutritious and tasty? We could use a focused, concerted effort to address distribution and minimize food left in the field, on the loading dock and in the waste bins of food processors. Those efforts include new packaging, tracking and transport technologies. Everyone, from chefs to consumers, needs a behavior-changing incentive to prepare, serve and consume food in smaller quantities. The move toward selling food in smaller-portioned packages is just a small step in that direction.

These innovations, many of them in the works now, will do much more to lower the amount of food waste than anything revealed in my photos. But, hey, try it yourself. Take your cellphone and snap a few post-meal images of your food trail. What do you see?

Food Movers: Staple or Delicacy, It’s in the Can

Food Movers: Staple or Delicacy, It’s in the Can

What do you need in a bomb shelter? Water, flashlights, blankets, a radio and, of course, canned food.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, many a family fallout shelter was stocked with canned food, including Multi-Purpose Food (MPF), a low-cost, shelf-stable, protein- and nutrient-rich food supplement manufactured by General Mills to be consumed “in case of emergency or disaster.” MPF, first conceived in the 1940s as a remedy for widespread hunger in postwar Europe, became a symbol of Cold War preparedness.

Since the mid-20th century, canned food has been a staple of the American diet. According to the Can Manufacturers Institute, the average American household has 24 cans of food in their pantry. And while the technology of canned food focuses on creating a shelf-stable product, the significance of canned food in food culture is anything but fixed.

For as long as people have moved food from its production location to market, packaging has played a key role, from product durability and trade efficiency to product differentiation and marketing. Canned food — durable, stackable and completely sealed — has transformed multiple links along the food supply chain since its first appearance nearly 250 years ago. Military campaigns, with their widely distributed provisioning requirements, have often led to innovations in the processing, packaging and distribution of food, particularly sources of protein. Credit goes to the Dutch Navy for being the first, in the late 18th century, to package hot beef covered with hot fat in tinned iron canisters.

The first to publish on the process of canning — preserving food in sealed containers — was Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1809, writing about a technique using glass containers. Fellow Frenchman Phillipe de Girard devised a canning process using tin and collaborated with Englishman Peter Durand, who obtained a patent in 1810. Durand promptly sold the patent to the British company Donkin, Hall and Gamble, which provided meat in tinned wrought-iron cans for the British Army and Royal Navy.


Now a pantry staple, canned food was initially conceived for use beyond a conventional kitchen. Metal cans could function as a serving container and, in a pinch, be heated over open flame. The sealed and opaque quality of the container prevented oxygen and light from breaking down food and protected it from contamination, thereby extending the product’s shelf life. Advances in metallurgy eventually helped cans become the cost-effective, disposable food containers now commonplace in kitchens and pantries.


a low-cost, shelf-stable, protein- and nutrient-rich product made by General Mills for use in “emergency or disaster.”

Cans are easily stacked and difficult to destroy, criteria that make them indispensible to military food supply chains. Contents can be cooked right inside the can, offering the prospect of a warm meal to anyone with access to a flame.

Three types of metals are now commonly used for cans. Tinplate is made by coating steel with a thin layer of tin, which is highly corrosion resistant. Cans made of aluminum — corrosion resistant and highly malleable — can be fabricated from two rather than three pieces. Electrolytic chromium-coated steel (ECCS, also known as tin-free steel), introduced in the 1960s to respond to fluctuations in the supply and cost of tin, has a higher melting point than tinplate but is less resistant to corrosion.

As the fabrication processes for rolling, shaping, soldering and welding metal improved, so did cans. They became thinner and more durable. Sealing methods evolved, too — some early cans were soldered closed with lead. A firmer understanding of microorganisms also has changed canning practices. Botulism from commercially produced canned food is now a rarity. Sustained high heat in processing kills spores of the Clostridium botulinum bacterium, which can otherwise survive in low-oxygen environments.

Opening metal cans initially required brute force and assumed the availability of heavy tools. The first metal can openers weren’t patented until the 1850s — some 50 years after the container itself came into use. Subsequently, market expansion led to the engineering of new opening strategies, which in turn made cans increasingly popular. Key-wind opening systems, which include a key with which to pull away a strip of metal (usually on the top of a can or tin), and later, easy-open ring tabs, made for portable, pocket-sized, accessory-free foodstuffs.

Like other products now considered relatively common, such as chocolate, 19th-century canned food took on special significance for a growing middle class. Take, for instance, ready-to-eat seafood “delicacies.” Comparable to predecessors such as salt cod and pickled herring, seafood cooked (or smoked) and packed in cans or tins offered a way to expand the market for seafood harvested in a specific location.

Canned sardines are but one example of a product that emerged as a delicacy and then became a crucial wartime ration during the two world wars. At its peak in 1939, the central California fishery associated with Cannery Row in Monterey landed 460,000 tons of sardines for the year. Today, canned sardines and anchovies, as well as other canned seafood products, cover a broad market range, from in-house brands for major supermarket chains to restaurants offering carefully selected tinned fish delicacies.

Cans have come a long way — evolving from opaque metal vessels to the TruVue clear plastic can, a kind of jar hybrid.

Before canned food, groceries were full-service stores, where grocers measured and gathered your order together. Prepackaged cans, with labels as built-in advertising, enabled consumers to choose and pick up goods themselves.

In 1917, the Piggly Wiggly market chain opened the first self-service grocery in Memphis, moving cans out from behind the counter into displays, and then shelves. This image is from the mid-1950s.


Food science and packaging technology created canned food, but grocers introduced it to the American household. Canned food transformed the role of grocers as well as the design of stores. As a prepackaged good of consistent weight, with labels as built-in advertising, canned food could practically sell itself. In 1917, the Piggly Wiggly market chain opened the first self-service grocery in Memphis, moving cans out from behind the counter into displays, and then shelves, where consumers could pick up cans, read labels and put them into carts. After World War II, the housing boom, the expansion of supermarkets, the practice of driving to shop for groceries, and the greater number of women working outside the home all helped normalize canned food as part of the modern American diet.

Artful labeling and package design is an integral part of branding, particularly for products sold in opaque containers. The rounded corners of rectangular metal tins of fish are practical, as well as emblematic of product contents. Streamlined form and graphic design evoke a sense of efficiency. Many original label motifs persist as recognizable brands today. In 1962, Andy Warhol painted the first of his Campbell’s cans series — 32 paintings that represent each offering in the Campbell’s brand — elevating the Campbell’s soup can into Pop Art.

The most money ever paid for a can of soup was $11.7 million for Andy Warhol’s Small Tom Campbell Soup Can (Torn Pepper Pot), one of 32 paintings in his soup can series, first exhibited in 1962.


In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) requiring all packaged food to list nutritional information relative to Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA). For the first time, consumers could compare the nutritional content of foods before buying them. Since then, processing improvements have enabled the use of fewer preservatives and increased nutrient retention. Nutrition research has also been important, for instance, in clarifying that canned fruits and vegetables do not make up a major source of sodium in the American adult diet.

For many people, canned food is a more nutritious choice than other food options, especially when accounting for seasonal availability. New packaging technologies — such as bisphenol A (BPA)–free see-through plastic cans now coming on the market — prompt the question: Does being able to see what’s in the can ensure that it is fresh, flavorful and healthy? The market will decide.

From newfangled packaging for military rations to convenience-food wonder for postwar households, the simple can ensured that foods grown or produced in one location could safely be consumed many hundreds of miles away. And while its status may have ebbed and flowed — from nifty new technology to cheap holder of less-than-fresh ingredients, and back to retro packaging of exotic delicacies — canned food remains a staple for pantries and fallout shelters the world over.

Need a refresher on how to play Kick the Can? Check out this helpful video.