PHOTOS BY JOSH KEOWN
Disposable plates and utensils may not sound like a good way to go in this day and age of green fever, but some pizza restaurant operators are saying that’s what their customers want –– and what works for them, rather than real china and metal utensils that have to be washed.
For a more casual restaurant, disposables can be a way to quickly meet the needs of customers without a lot of fuss. Kurt Zwanzig, owner of ZwanzigZ Pizza in Columbus, Indiana, says his customers like the sanitary nature of paper plates and utensils. His operation started as carryout and delivery only, so disposables were a way to provide a way for customers to eat at the restaurant once the restaurant saw an increase in demand for eat-in facilities. Zwanzig has polled customers about whether or not disposable plates and utensils fit their needs, and found that customers actually wanted him to stick with disposables. “We got feedback from some of more particular customers who were frequent diners,” Zwanzig says. “They said they enjoyed having a clean plate every time.”
Disposable plates and utensils may be the perfect choice for pizza restaurants that are cultivating a more casual atmosphere, says Ashley Howard, director of marketing for FoodServiceWarehouse.com, a Web site that sells restaurant equipment and supplies. The majority of restaurants who buy from the company purchase and use real china and metal utensils, but more casual pizza restaurants sometimes choose disposable. “We are seeing restaurant owners who want to give off a higher-end vibe, maybe they serve pizza but also have other selections on menu, choose real china,” Howard says. “If a restaurant is smaller and customers are in a hurry and aren’t looking for that traditional waiter experience, they might use disposable.”
The biggest drawback for traditional plates and utensils, Zwanzig says, is labor. His restaurant doesn’t have the room, for one, for a dishwashing set up, and he’d have to hire more personnel, and that’s always costly. “Our dish area is already in full mode all day,” Zwanzig says. “We make 1,000 pounds of dough on Thursday in preparation for the weekend. To think about having a plate, a fork and a cup for every one of our customers in addition to the dough trays – well, I don’t even want to think about that.”Zwanzig says he knows investing in china would eventually pay for itself, but he’s concerned about getting the dishes and utensils clean enough. “In the long run, having the traditional hard plates and cups would be less expensive,” Zwanzig says. “The problem is continuous labor, and the quality of the cleanliness. I don’t want to take any chances.”
It is possible to be green –– and use disposables. Amici’s Pizza in Berkley, Michigan, also uses disposable plates and utensils – but has gone to great pains to ensure that all of the paper products are properly recycled. Jennifer Stark, owner, says her brother started the restaurant using Styrofoam, and after she bought the restaurant, she decided to take it green. Amici’s joined the Green Restaurant Association and adopted its principles.
“We implemented recycling, and switched to Chinette compostable plates,” Stark says. The restaurant sorts all trash for recycling, and it is picked up by a garbage company that takes items for recycling or composting.
Stark says compostable and recyclable materials are much more expensive, but she believes customers support them because they take the extra steps to ensure their restaurant is as green as possible. “It’s paid for itself with volume,” Stark says. “Our customers value what we’re doing …. A lot of the food we serve is vegan, and we have a lot of conscientious customers.
They’re educated and knowledgeable. We listened to our clients and decided they were right.” Both Stark and Zwanzig note that their restaurants’ kitchens simply are not large enough for a dishwashing area, which was the primary motivation for going disposable.
Almost any type of dining room item, including plates, utensils and take-out containers, can be made from plant-based materials, including corn, plant starch and sugar
cane (see sidebar for full explanation of materials available).
The cost for plant-based disposable dining materials, however, is higher. Yet, in many instances, the difference isn’t
substantial — and the goodwill created by using green products certainly has its own significant worth.
A case of ecologically friendly cups, for example, can range from about $82 to $140 for 1,000 cups, depending on the material used. A case of 1,000 comparable cups in a traditional plastic or Styrofoam material can cost as low as $50 or as high as $123. “There is a very wide spread across the board, but in some cases, depending on the quality you’re looking for, these items can help you capture business,” Howard says. “A lot of customers are very concerned about the environment, and it can be something (operators) can use to show customers they are ... trying to do what’s right.”
Plant-based disposables are commonly available now, and can be a great choice for a restaurant that wants to stick with disposable tableware but also wants to be green. Here’s a rundown of the types of materials used to make ecologically friendly disposable restaurant ware from Ashley Howard of FoodServiceWarehouse.com:
PLA is a corn-based product. Almost entirely biodegradable and can be composted. Nearly any type of dining item, including plates, utensils and take-out containers, can be made from this substance.
PSM is plant starch material, which is the fiber and pulp from vegetation excluding from genetically modified corn. This will look more like plastic, Howard said, and biodegrades within 95 days.
Sugar cane has a look and feel that’s the most similar to paper, Howard said. Containers, cups, portion cups and coffee take-out cups are the most common items made from sugar cane.
Robyn Davis Sekula is a freelance writer living in New Albany, Indiana.
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