When most people think about a meal, they think of taste. But that’s not where the sensory experience begins. Not according to Alistair Levine, partner and head of business development at KitchenSync.

“You eat with your eyes first,” he told the crowd at Food On Demand 2024 during a panel discussion on packaging solutions for off-premises operations. “If something shows up that looks like a bear mauled it, you’re not going to be super excited to eat it.”

A lion maybe. A bear? No.

Joining Levine on stage were moderator Ashley Elizinga of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, Gracie Prasanson, vice president of sales at Jason’s Deli, and Jeff Rinke, vice president of marketing at Hungry Howie’s Pizza.

Rinke echoed Levine’s sentiments about visual significance. He also gave a delivery tip that every pizza operator in the world can understand.

“Once you have more than three pizzas in a delivery bag, the crushability of the box becomes a factor,” he said, noting that 60 percent of his business from more than 600 locations in 21 states comes from delivery. His solution? Barbie.

“If it’s a 16-inch box we use a stand, which we refer to as a Barbie table tent. It goes in the middle of the box and holds the top up and keeps the pies from being crushed,” he said.

Prasanson does not employ Barbie but she does believe in bright colors.

“Presentation is everything and you want your packaging to have personality,” she said.

Multiple personalities actually. Jason’s Deli owns its own distribution company, she said, which allows it to customize its outer wear based on the type of order. It offers a variety of ordering options for both individual meal consumers or catering customers in its 240 locations in 27 states, with 67 percent of its orders leaving in packaging. Yet for all its packaging diversity, one thing is consistent. “Our logo is always visible and facing the customer,” Prasanson said.

It’s one thing to want to be creative and memorable with your packaging. But you don’t want to overdo it. Levine has seen this happen.

“I’ve spoken with operators who spend 7 percent of their total sales on packaging,” he said. “You’re never going to make money that way. You don’t need to brand everything. It might be better to take some of that and use it on a marketing spend.”

How then to approach negotiations with your vendors who produce your packaging? Levine offered a template.

“How many different SKUs are you buying? How much can you buy versus the concentration of those SKUs? This massively affects price. Usually, a truckload or more is where pricing starts to meaningfully change,” he said. “If you’re buying 150 different packages but it’s almost impossible for your team to operationally manage them, you’re just lighting money on fire.”

Prasanson offered a final note.

“Pick packaging that fits multiple purposes,” she said. “That is how you maximize your buying power.”