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Besides helping the environment, what other benefits can restaurants see from green food packages?

Restaurant curbside pickup evolved from the old-fashioned takeout service and has gained momentum since COVID. Restaurateurs embrace the concept, and consumers want it. Curbside pickup will remain an essential restaurant distribution method even after the pandemic.

Do off-premises restaurant services add a burden to the environment?

The surge of restaurant off-premises services (curbside pickup, takeout, or delivery) could harm the environment because many retailers use food containers and packages made of plastic for one-time usage. Research shows that our world populations produce 130 million tons of single-use plastic a year (including more than food packages here), but in the U.S., only 8% of all plastic products get recycled.

Some restaurants have begun using more sustainable materials in food packaging (e.g., disposable containers). Their efforts deserve a round of applause! Nevertheless, it is unclear if their good deeds can also bring them monetary rewards. For example, can green food packages help restaurants attract new and retain existing customers for the curbside pickup service?

The Study

To address those questions in mind, I worked with Dr. Michael Lin at Hong Kong Polytechnic University on a research project. We published the results in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, answering three research questions:

  1. Do green food packages affect consumers’ purchasing decisions before trying a restaurant’s curbside pickup service for the first time?
  2. What effects do green food packages have on consumers’ overall experience of a restaurant’s curbside pickup service after trying it?
  3. What ripple effects do green food packages have on the restaurant’s business, such as positive word-of-mouth (WOM) behavioral intentions, extra efforts to purchase in the restaurant, and (increased) share of future purchases?

We examined the consumers’ curbside pickup process under the service encounters framework and collected 314 valid questionnaires for statistical analysis. We analyzed the data with a choice experiment, ordinary least squares regression, and PROCESS modeling.

Finding 1: Factors Affecting New Customers’ Purchasing Decisions 

Green food packages have no effects at this stage. The two influential factors are:

  1. WOM encounter --- having over 80% positive reviews from major social media platforms (vs. having mixed 50/50 reviews).
  2. Function encounter --- having an app or a website for ordering food and tracking the order online (vs. calling to order)

Finding 2: Factors Affecting Consumers’ First-Time Curbside Pickup Experience

After trying the service for the first time, what affects their satisfaction becomes:

  1. Service results encounter, e.g., food temperature, quality, hygiene, etc.
  2. Distributor encounter, e.g., courtesy of the servers, wait time, etc.

Surprisingly, consumers perceiving low importance of restaurant green practices tend to have a significantly higher rating of their experience when they see a restaurant using green food packages. It is plausible that this group of consumers see green food packages as a “delightful” add-on to the curbside pickup service, boosting their positive feeling about the order.

Finding 3: Green Food Packages’ Ripple Effects 

  1. Positive experiences will lead to positive WOM intentions toward curbside pickup and then toward the restaurant providing the service.
  2. Positive WOM intentions toward the restaurant will eventually lead to an increased share of future purchases in the restaurant.
  3. Using green food packages can increase consumers' efforts to purchase curbside pickup through their satisfaction, which further leads to an increased share of future purchases in the restaurant.
  4. Consumers who appreciate green restaurant practices are more willing to travel farther, pay a higher price, and/or wait longer for the service if the restaurant uses green food packages.

What Do the Results Mean to Restauranteurs and Policymakers?

  • Both restaurants and third-party ordering websites/apps must feature visual content (e.g., food and beverage pictures and green food packages) to attract new customers.
  • Restaurants should encourage satisfied customers to post positive online reviews of the restaurant.
  • They should also respond to those negative reviews to show they have addressed the service failure issues.
  • Providing high-quality F&B items and friendly service is still the key to customer satisfaction in curbside pickup.
  • If using green food packages, restaurants should communicate their efforts and initiatives clearly with their target customers.
  • Policymakers may consider both the costs and benefits (ripple effects) of using green food packages as they encourage or require restaurants to use green food packages for all off-premises services.

The Conclusion

No study is perfect. While there are limitations with this research, our work confirms that the influential factors on consumers’ curbside pickup experiences can shift as they move from the pre- to post-consumption stage. Using green food packages might not help attract new customers. Still, it comes with many positive effects beyond benefiting our planet at the later stages of the experience.

When you order takeout, delivery, or curbside pickup service from a restaurant, do you pay attention to its food packages? How much do green food packages affect your overall experience and repurchase behaviors?

Note: This article is also published on Hospitality News Magazine publishes an even shorter highlight of this research. 


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