Most people who ride trains just look out the window, try to catch a few winks, or talk on their cell phones. A hundred years ago this year, Samuel J. Crumbine took a train ride that created an industry.
Dr. Crumbine was a physician and public health officer in Kansas in 1908. He was on a train when he witnessed one of his tuberculosis patients taking a drink of water from the common dipper and water bucket in his car. Right behind that patient was a small girl who eagerly drank from the same dipper and bucket.
Dr. Crumbine was so upset by what he had seen on his train ride that as soon as he got home he started what became a nationwide ban on the use of common utensils in public places. Taking note of this public health uprising, two entrepreneurs in New York City, Lawrence Luellen, and his brother-in-law Hugh Moore, came up with a response to Dr. Crumbine’s concern: They invented a coneshaped paper cup that could be used once and discarded. They called their invention the “Health Cup” and sold it for a penny each to hospitals, schools and organizations like the World Tuberculosis Congress – any place where the spread of infectious diseases could occur.
While “Health Cup” properly described the benefit of the product, the name wasn’t the most marketable. Moore, the salesman of the two, had a friend who was a toy maker who made dolls, and he liked the name of one doll in particular … Dixie. So he called his single-use product the Dixie Cup and an industry was born.
MULTI-MILLION SINGLE USES
A hundred years later the single-use packaging (now called foodservice packaging) industry has become a global industry, with sales in the U.S. alone of an estimated $12-15 billion annually, and products that range far beyond single-use cups to plates, platters, bowls, cutlery, straws, bags, boxes, wraps, domed containers, and hinged containers numbering into the hundreds of billions. In any place, almost anywhere in the world, where food and beverages are sold, you will find the now-ubiquitous single-use foodservice package.
And items aren’t being made from just paper anymore, either. Today a half dozen plastic polymers, aluminum, pulp, and now biopolymers and non-tree cellulose such as bamboo, grasses and bagasse (sugar cane waste) are being converted into foodservice packaging.
Since the McDonalds brothers’ invention of the modern quick-service restaurant concept single-use foodservice packaging has become a major component of that concept. Today nearly 70 percent of the business at a typical QSR goes through the drive-thru window or out the front door. And it doesn’t go out unless it’s in foodservice packaging.
And a growing number of foodservice operators are taking advantage of foodservice packaging’s mobility by using the packaging as an opportunity to promote their brand while increasing sales. A large takeout bag with mouth-watering photos of pancakes on both sides proved to be a “walking billboard” for one national chain. And a few years ago, operators took advantage of a new design for beverage up lids that featured a hinged lid with a dimple in the middle of the bottom surface for holding a music CD. The operator sold literally millions of drinks containing several cuts from the latest Madonna album, once again proving that inventive and graphically “cool” foodservice packaging can indeed move sales!
Another hallmark of today’s foodservice package is that it is very “autocentric,” that is, it is designed to be compatible with automobile cup holders, front and back seats, etc. Packaging manufacturers know that there is a high probability that their packaging is going to come in contact with an automobile at some point in its life cycle, either as a lunch or dinner pick-up package, or for one-hand eating in motion, or as essential part of dashboard dining.
In fact, one restaurant chain on the West Coast has designed its large takeout bag with a flexible paper strap that the driver can secure through the passenger seat belt to keep their take out meal upright on the way home!
Another trend in today’s single-use package is its use by some foodservice operators to demonstrate their environmental awareness. This “green” movement brought about the birth of the biopolymers and “non-tree cellulose” materials, and sharpened manufacturers’ focus on removing material, while improving the strength, of their products. Such “light- weighting” saves on distribution fuel and produces a smaller carbon footprint for all concerned.
SINGLE USE SAVES THE DAY
It is safe to say that Dr. Crumbine had no idea what he started when he got off that train in Kansas 100 years ago. But what we do know is that millions of people have been protected from diseases they might otherwise have been subjected to at large scale mass feeding venues.
And when earthquakes, hurricanes and floods come, and the power goes out, and there’s no way to wash and sanitize dishes and drinkware, millions of Americans throughout the years have had a safe, sanitary alternative for feeding themselves thanks to single-use packaging.
Dr. Crumbine, Lawrence Luellen and Hugh Moore would be amazed, and proud, of what they did in the name of public health.
John R. Burke is president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, the premier material-neutral association in the foodservice packaging industry. For information visit www.fpi.org.