The fast food restaurant industry in the United States currently includes more than 200,000 restaurant locations with combined annual revenue of approximately $191 billion.1 These quick-service restaurants (QSRs) are characterized by providing full meals quickly, at an affordable price, and with no table service. Consumers choose to eat fast food because it is convenient, prepared quickly, a good value, and inexpensive.2 The packaging used by QSRs not only needs to support these expectations, but it must also be part of an overall positive product experience. This article discusses different materials used to package sandwiches in quick-service restaurants, attributes of the materials used to create the packaging, and how consumers reacted to each type of packaging. Owners of quick-service restaurants who understand how their customers interact with the various styles of packaging can use the information to improve current menu items and create a more positive overall consumer experience.
QSRs offer a wide variety of menu items, and nearly all the menu items are intended to be eaten on the go, meaning they do not require the use of cutlery. Consequently, most food products in QSRs are consumed directly from a container or package. In the QSR industry, this type of packaging is known as single-use or disposable foodservice packaging. Food product packaging can be a factor in consumer decision-making because it enables consumers to make assumptions about how the product tastes. In addition to shaping taste expectations, the packaging can affect subsequent product experiences.3,4 The packaging chosen for food products often communicates a message to consumers, which makes choosing an appropriate packaging material critical for companies in the QSR industry.
Packaging materials commonly used in fast food restaurants include paper, paperboard, plastic, foil, and corrugated paperboard.5 Consumers tend to prefer certain materials with certain products, in part because they are perceived to be appropriate for that product.6 In addition to what they’re made of, packaging containers vary in size, shape, and appearance. Fast food sandwiches are primarily packaged in a clamshell container (two hinged halves of a shell) or wrapped in flat sheets of paper.
Factors Affecting Taste Perception
A consumer’s experience with a package has a direct impression on their perception of its contents.7 Food packaging characteristics convey messages to consumers, but they are not directly related to the taste of the food itself. Research has shown that consumers use information represented by packaging characteristics to make assumptions about the package’s contents even when the product attributes being evaluated are completely unrelated to packaging appearance. For these reasons, packaging needs to be considered an integral part of the product. The color, shape, weight, and material of a package influence how consumers feel about the product even before they taste the contents, something that can affect not only their perception of the food but also whether they will buy that product again in the future.
The shape of a package may influence the way a consumer feels about the brand, but it can also bias judgment of the actual product quality.8 Package shapes that are perceived as attracting more attention are also perceived to contain a greater amount of product than packages that attract less consumer attention.8 Package shape can even affect the perceived flavor of the product: Cadbury once changed the shape of their milk chocolate bar, and consumers argued that the recipe and ingredients had changed (it hadn’t been changed at all).9
Color also provides room for consumers to make assumptions about the package contents. The color of the plate of food, container for a burger, or wrapping for a sandwich can affect flavor perception. The color of a product can even suggest a product will taste a certain way to the consumer, and it has been observed that people can match various desserts to the color of packaging they belong to.10,11
Changing how much a package weighs or what it is made of can impact what a consumer thinks about the quality of the product. Decreasing the thickness of a package may lead consumers to believe that their food is not well-protected, which, in turn, can lead to an unfavorable experience while eating the products.
Consumers do not make these kinds of assumptions deliberately. They base their assumptions on personal experiences that have helped them develop impressions based on things like packaging attributes which cause them to have certain expectations of how a product should taste.7,12,13 A lot of research has been done to investigate the relationship between food packaging and the contents within that package. Here are just two examples:
- The material properties of a cup could modify the perceived quality and taste of the drink consumed from it.14,15
- The ease with which a bag of potato chips opened was directly linked to the perceived taste of its content; the difficult-to-open bags were viewed to contain better quality chips.16
Four types of packaging are commonly used with QSR sandwiches (figure 1).
- 14 pt paperboard clamshell: single layer of food-safe paperboard/cardstock
- EPS clamshell: expanded polystyrene (foam)
- F-flute clamshell: container made of micro-corrugated paper
- Paper wrap: food-safe sheet of paper
A panel of 110 participants sampled hamburgers and chicken sandwiches that had been packaged in the packaging types listed above, then rated the sandwiches in three categories:
- Sensory attributes: how the packaging interacted with the food—flavor, texture, overall liking.
- Functionality attributes: how the packaging works—protects the product, opens easily, contains product, keeps product warm, easy to carry.
- Credence attributes: intangible characteristics of the packaging that provide messages about how natural the package is, being environmentally friendly, having a modern appearance, providing a premium impression.
The chicken sandwich and the hamburgers received similar scores regardless of the type of packaging containing the sandwiches, suggesting that none of the packaging options had much of an impact on how the sandwiches tasted to the customers. This means that it might not matter as much as previously thought about the effect that a particular packaging option has on the taste of sandwiches. On the surface, it might seem like QSR owners should just use whichever packaging they prefer; however, there are other considerations to consider, such as functionality and credence attributes of the chosen packaging.
Table 1. Packaging preferences by attributes. “Yes” indicates the options preferred the most; “No” indicates the least favored options; boxes not marked had moderate scores ranking between the highest and lowest.
|14 pt Paperboard Clamshell||EPS (foam) Clamshell||F-Flute (corrugated) Clamshell||Paper Wrap|
|Protects the sandwich||Yes||Yes||No|
|Easy to open||No||Yes||Yes|
|Contains the sandwich||Yes||Yes||No|
|Keeps the sandwich warm||Yes||Yes||No|
|Easy to carry||No||Yes||Yes||No|
Functionality measures how well the packaging interacts with the product itself by investigating features such as how well the package protects the sandwich, how easy it is to carry and open, how warm it keeps the food, and how well it contains the sandwich. Overall, as shown in table 1, the foam clamshell and the corrugated clamshell were the favorites; the paper wrap was almost universally rejected as a good option.
Strategies for QSR Owners
When considering only the sensory attributes of a package, it’s safe to say that the package did not affect the perceived flavor of either sandwich type. It would be easy for QSR owners to stop there and use the packaging option that best meets their sense of design or what their budget can handle. There are more factors to consider, however, and they can have a substantial impact on how a customer regards the products purchased at a fast-food restaurant.
When taking both functionality and credence attributes into consideration, it’s clear that the F-flute corrugated clamshell is the preferred package. It not only provides a convenient package for holding and carrying the sandwich, but it protects the sandwich and helps maintain the temperature. Looking at the credence attributes, the corrugated clamshell scored highest in all categories, which suggests that customers feel it is the best option, providing positive perceptions of style and sustainability.
The foam clamshell did score high in functionality. Still, it did not meet customer expectations regarding credence scores, suggesting that while it might be a convenient option for packaging, customers might have negative perceptions about its style and environmental impact. The paper wrap received low scores for nearly all attributes in both categories suggesting that this might not be the best option for QSR owners to package their sandwiches. The paperboard clamshell seldom received either the highest or lowest scores, indicating that it might be a good compromise if the customer-preferred corrugated clamshell is not an option, for whatever reason.
In summary, quick service has become a major component of the American expectation, which isn’t likely to change.17 We wanted to find out if the flavor of sandwiches changed according to the packages they were in. While a lot more study should be undertaken to provide more in-depth data, the study showed that there wasn’t much change in how the sandwiches tasted, but in other areas, the packaging provided different perspectives, with the F-flute being preferred in both functionality and intangibles such as sustainability and appearance. With restaurants constantly adding new items to their menus, it is important for them to pay attention to consumer trends and understand consumer needs.
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- Cardello AV. Consumer expectations and their role in food acceptance. In: MacFie HJH, Thomson DMH, editors. Measurement of food preferences. Boston (MA): Springer US; 1994. p. 253–297. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4615-2171-6_10. doi:10.1007/978-1-4615-2171-6_10.
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- Single-use foodservice packaging: a tutorial. Falls Church (VA): Foodservice Packaging Institute; 2007 [accessed 2022 Apr 6]. https://docplayer.net/31392951-Single-use-foodservice-packaging-a-tutorial.html.
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