At the four-unit Peoples Organic café in Minneapolis, owner Juell Roberts was fed up with the garbage that was created by to-go packaging during the pandemic.
“There’s just so much waste with to-go,” she said.
So earlier this year, Roberts agreed for her upscale fast-casual restaurants to be a test site for a new reusable packaging system launched by the company that created r.Cup, a reusable cup system used at concerts, stadiums and event spots across 30 states — from U2 and Rolling Stones concerts to the 3M PGA Golf Tour — designed to divert potentially millions of disposable plastic cups from ending up in landfills, incinerators or waterways.
During the pandemic, restaurants turned to delivery and takeout for survival, and that created a tsunami of waste.
Restaurants needed a solution, said Keiko Niccolini, r.Cup’s chief marketing officer and general manager, and Minneapolis-based r.Cup, which was founded in 2017, had a proven model.
And so r.Ware by r.Cup was born — a reusable system of to-go foodservice packaging.
But it’s not just about providing containers for delivery and takeout. R.Ware offers a technology-based, closed-loop system that’s also a loyalty program, which the company now hopes to grow in Minneapolis, and later to other markets across the country.
It works like this: Restaurants can choose from a selection of r.Ware containers in various sizes and styles. For now, all are made from a polypropylene hard plastic that can be safely washed and sanitized multiple times, and r.Cup works closely with Ecolab to ensure food-safety standards are prioritized, Niccolini said.
In addition to the containers, restaurants are also given a return station, or collection bin, roughly the size of a mailbox, which is outfitted with an iPad.
On the containers are instructions for the consumers, directing them to download an app, scan the container QR code, and bring the containers back to the restaurant to earn rewards. How each restaurant chooses to reward those guests is up to them, said Niccolini.
“It’s fully customizable,” she said. “It could be ‘return five containers get $5 off’ or ‘return 10 and get a cup of coffee’ – we can make it do really nearly anything. It drives repeat business.”
Photo: “I really feel there’s a key intersect between sustainability and business solutions,” Keiko Niccolini said. “If you give folks the opportunity to do the right thing, most of the time they really will.”
R.Ware, meanwhile, collects the used containers each day and brings them to a third-party “wash hub,” where they are washed and sanitized before being returned to the restaurant to begin the cycle again.
Cost comparisons with disposable foodware is difficult because r.Ware offers a turnkey system that includes marketing, the loyalty program and sustainability messaging that includes signage and takeout bag inserts.
Roberts of Peoples Organics said the r.Ware containers cost her about 60 cents per container, which is more than the 11 cents to 22 cents she paid previously for disposables, but the restaurants pass some of the cost on to customers to make up the difference.
But the marketing benefits have been innumerable, from press coverage to word-of-mouth, she added. And customers love it.
“There’s way more value to do it than not to have it,” said Roberts.
R.Ware’s technology and collection/return system can be used with other types of containers, including custom packaging in materials like ceramic or stainless steel, if restaurants prefer.
“Plastic is not ideal,” said Niccolini. “The reality is we are looking to solve the plastic crisis with plastic. We are evolving our relationship with plastic. It would be wonderful to use other materials.”
But, for the test, Niccolini said the company wanted to see whether consumers brought the containers back. And, though she can’t share the specific return rate because the test is ongoing, they were pleased with results.
And when the containers reach the end of their usefulness, r.Ware will ensure they are upcycled and made into something else, said Niccolini. “We make sure we close the loop all the way.”
R.Ware is among a growing number of reusable to-go container system providers that began popping up around the country before the pandemic. Fear of COVID set the reusables movement back somewhat in 2020. But with the virus in retreat, advocates are driving home the message that reusable containers are safe, while the growing problem of plastic pollution is both a health and climate change issue.
Across the country, service providers like r.Ware are racing to scale to meet demand, including Dispatch Goods in San Francisco, and DeliverZero in New York City. Some are targeting onsite foodservice settings, like universities and senior living facilities.
A growing number of restaurant chains are also experimenting with reusable to-go packaging or working to reduce their waste footprint. New York-based Just Salad pioneered reusable bowls more than a decade ago, and chains like Starbucks, Burger King and Wendy’s are exploring reusable packaging.
Niccolini envisions a world with a network of providers, collection stations and wash hubs to make the reuse/return process more affordable for restaurants and convenient for diners.
“Our long-term goal, and really what the industry needs, is infrastructure,” said Niccolini.
The time is right, she added, with consumers pushing for more sustainable packaging and restaurant operators more open to disruptive solutions.
“I really feel there’s a key intersect between sustainability and business solutions,” she said. “If you give folks the opportunity to do the right thing, most of the time they really will.”
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout