It seems absurd now given the popularity of restaurant ‘makeaways’ and how they’ve evolved, but back in the midst of England’s first lockdown of 2020, as spring turned to summer, chef Tommy Banks was sending his food out in “foil cartons with lids” akin to a local takeaway. The chef-patron of Michelin-starred The Black Swan in Oldstead and newly-starred Roots in York, was, like many other restaurateurs, scrambling to adapt to this new way of operating.
“It was a huge challenge initially as we had never made any food to send out before,” says Banks of the early days. “We managed to get everything together in about a week when we first launched Made In Oldstead.”
When Fine Dining Lovers last spoke to Banks, in July 2020, he had just taken the Made in Oldstead brand – not dishes from the restaurants as such, but rather those that travel well and are easily assembled at home, but still “seasonal and delicious,” according to Banks – nationwide. A pioneer of the makeaway movement, Banks had a clear understanding of its potential, and was sending out hundreds of boxes a week, a pivot that saved his business.
That success has continued through subsequent lockdowns and naturally, the packaging has evolved too. Banks has recognised that the way the food arrives to the home is perhaps now just as important as the way it’s presented on the plate in his restaurants.
“We are very modular with our packaging. There’s a cardboard box encasing everything and then each course comes in its own box, which makes the plating-up process easier. Within each of these smaller boxes there are pots, oven-proof dishes, vacuum sealed bags and all other sorts of packaging.”
That includes sustainable wool insulation from Staffordshire-based Woolcool. The company works with a plethora of UK restaurants on ‘at home’ offerings, including many early adopters: the likes of Banks, Pizza Pilgrims and JKS Restaurants (Gymkhana, Lyle’s). Woolcool had been working in the food delivery sector, with supermarkets, upmarket food stores like Fortnum & Mason, and food box delivery businesses such as Abel & Cole, for a number of years, but very few restaurants. That all changed as soon as a few big name chefs and restaurants started using their products.
“We had a reputation in the market as enabling our customers to send fresh, chilled, frozen or even ambient products in the post without temperature-controlled vehicles,” says Woolcool’s managing director Josie Morris of their USP. “It’s very basic: cardboard boxes, wool and ice packs. Some [restaurants] said they saw us from other restaurant kits, while some maybe just found us through Google. We're also part of the Sustainable Restaurant Association. We signed up to that because we wanted to promote the fact that if restaurants were looking to be sustainable, and send their food out in that way, then we would be an option to them.”
Woolcool claim their product “has been independently proven to keep food contents below the all important 5°C for at least 24 hours and longer.” The wool, which is too coarse for knitwear and comes from British and European sheep, is wrapped in 100% recyclable plastic. Head to Woolcool’s website and you’ll find a bunch of ideas for reusing the wool in the home and garden. They’ll let you send the packaging back to them to be reused too.
Insulation and sustainability points aside, importantly, the wool offers significant protection during transit. This has been especially important for another of Woolcool’s customers: Sketch, in London. The food and arts destination in Mayfair has been selling hundreds of its re-heatable meals and afternoon teas per week – over 900 in three days for Valentine’s, they report.
“Meals arrive in a pink cloud of luxurious carrier bags and packaging,” says Sketch’s CEO Sinead Mallozzi of the flamboyant offer, which is inspired by Sketch’s pink brasserie as opposed to its three-Michelin-star Lecture Room and Library. “We even supply sugar cane oven-proof recyclable dishes to eat the meals from if the customer prefers not to have to wash up following their experience.”
Mallozzi backs up Woolcool’s claims – “I received a meal which was picked up from Sketch at 3pm on a Friday and delivered to me at 12 noon the next day in perfect condition and at 2.3°C.” Sketch worked on its distinctive pink designs with Parisians Ich & Kar, whom they’ve collaborated with for the past 20 years. “Sketch's philosophy has always been to delight and inspire,” says Mallozzi. “Our trademark jewellery box that ‘At Home Afternoon Tea’ is delivered in is a piece of art in its own right.”
If packaging is the new plating then down the road at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, they’re showing off their three-Michelin-star credentials. For ‘Hélène à la Maison,’ the food arrives in a reusable cool bag. Inside, the five-course tasting menu is presented in origami, lotus-style boxes that are both visually striking and protect the delicate creations within, as well as clay pots and jars. ‘We look forward to spreading a little bit of positivity and joy with our food,” says Darroze.
Back at Woolcool, Morris says bespoke packaging is something clients are demanding more and more. “It's allowing them to build a brand around the box. A lot of those restaurants in London that people up north probably have never heard of are now getting their brand out to people in say Yorkshire. Those people may go down to London and they know that restaurant and they're going to visit it. So, there's a really great brand awareness that comes off the back of that.”
A perfect example is JKS’s Hoppers. A Sri Lankan restaurant with three sites in London, it now delivers nationwide in England and Wales. Its Cash and Kari brand has its own website, and its Woolcool-stuffed boxes arrive with riotously colourful branding, beautifully printed menus and step-by-step cooking instructions, and a QR code for a Spotify cookalong playlist. There are snacks and playful nudges to open another beer just in time for the main course. They understand that the makeaway experience has now become an event, a substitute for going out to dinner. Sometimes people want to get dressed up. The packaging therefore should make the effort too.
Sketch also offers QR codes for playlists and cooking instructions via Youtube, and many other meal kit menus will prompt you to head to the chef or restaurant’s Instagram account to see dishes being prepared. But for those who prefer to have something tangible in their hands, Massimo Bottura’s Franceschetta 58 restaurant in Modena, Italy, offers a novel solution for their meal kits: colourful illustrations depicting exactly how the dishes should look.
Back in Yorkshire, Banks has now gone fully bespoke with Made in Oldstead, working with a local printing company. “We realised very quickly that ‘off the shelf’ packaging wasn’t ideal,” he says. “For example, we wanted to put a cheeseboard on the menu so we designed a special board that had specific triangular shapes to fit the cheeses in nicely.”
So is there anything Banks would like to do with packaging that he can’t currently?
“Can I say for it to deliver itself?”