Thinking 'round the box

April 5, 2004

A round pizza box.

Seems logical, since the majority of all pizzas are round.

And considering that the last groundbreaking pizza industry inventions include the conveyor oven (nearly three decades ago) and the high-tech point-of-sale system (nearly 15 years ago), a truly round box is at least innovative.

But will pizza operators care enough about a circular box to think outside of the tried-and-true square box?

John Harvey, inventor of the round pizza box, called Presseal, believes they will, once they know more about it. (A helpful animated demonstration can be viewed at the company's Web site.)

According to Harvey, Presseal's shape keeps the pizza from sliding around inside the box, its construction and circular design make it stronger than standard square boxes, and the materials used in

Visible from the side are vent holes on the Presseal box from which steam can escape easily.

his box trap grease better than regular boxes.

Nice ... but necessary?

"I think so," said Harvey, whose product development company, Harvco Technologies, is in Atlanta. Just as the transition to corrugated pizza boxes from clay-board boxes was an industry boon, Harvey believes the departure from square to round could be just as impactful. "It's what a pizza box should look like, and it works so much better than what's out there now."

Bag and board to box

Pizza consultant "Big Dave" Ostrander remembers what a nightmare pizza carryout was just a few decades ago. Hot pies were slid onto cardboard circles, slipped into paper bags and folded shut.

"Sometimes customers carried the thing out like a suitcase, and it wasn't pretty after that," said Ostrander, who, at the time, owned Big Dave's Pizza in Oscoda, Mich. "The next big thing was the lock-corner clayboard box. They were labor intensive to put together because you had to fold and crease them, and they had definite structural problems. If you stacked one pizza on top of another, the weight would mash the bottom one."

That all changed in 1977, with the introduction of the corrugated pizza box. Not only was it a much stronger box, it was stackable, easier to assemble and a better insulator than clay-board.

Arvco Container Corp.'s Steve France was among the first to sell corrugated boxes to pizza operators. Back then the market was ready for a change, he said, because the need was profound and the Kalamazoo, Mich., manufacturer was willing to take a risk.

"When we got into corrugated boxes, there were some real legitimate concerns" in the pizza industry, said France. "Clay-coated boxes were made out of reprocessed materials, which would stink when they got steamy. They would sag, too, and stick to the top of the pizza."

When France visited Ostrander to show him those early corrugated boxes, he was sold and ordered 25,000; Pizza Hut also liked what it saw.

Months later, Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan learned of the corrugated box, and pizza delivery was forever changed.

"There wasn't really a product available then to deliver pizza with, and the corrugated box changed all that," France said. All of which makes him wonder whether there's a need for the Presseal box. "The conditions were totally different than what I see now. I'd be interested in seeing if it really could replace the corrugated pizza box in the marketplace."

Harvey is no stranger to the foodservice packaging industry. In the 1980s, he worked for paper goods giant Dixie, which wanted to crack into the pizza business. Several years after the corrugated box revolutionized the pizza industry, Dixie asked Harvey to develop a unique package, and he came back with a circular box made of corrugated cardboard.

After some development and tweaking, the box was shopped around to several pizza chains for testing, but it never caught on.

"We already had the development pretty well ironed out, but in the end it lacked the marketing oomph it needed to get them to the pizzerias," said Harvey. Dixie manufactured for foodservice distributors, not pizza distributors, he added. "They were reluctant to take that on, and we just didn't have that channel set up. So it sort of died a slow death and blew away in the wind."

What's new in boxes?

Some 25 years later, Harvey learned that a Columbus, Ohio-based manufacturer, Graylex, had developed an efficient method of forming corrugated board, and he traveled there to show off his once-deceased round box idea. Impressed, Graylex moved to develop the machinery to produce it.

Nested together, several dozen Presseal boxes consume considerably less space compared to far fewer assembled traditional boxes.

Though still largely the same, Harvey said several key improvements have been made to the box. One is a unique cohesive seal, which allows the box's top and bottom to close together only when face-to-face, not when nested back to front. The cohesive seal itself is quite clever in that it resists opening by any means other than pulling apart two offset tabs on the box's top and bottom halves.

To deter seepage, a grease-absorbent coating has been added to the box's bottom, and to help steam escape, small holes were cut around the box top's perimeter.

"One of the biggest complaints pizza operators hear from customers is that grease goes through the container and onto a car seat or table," Harvey said. "And the other one heard a lot is soggy pizza. This box addresses both really well."

The Presseal also is a tremendous space saver, Harvey said. Compared to standard assembled pizza boxes, Presseal boxes take up only one-tenth of the same amount of space. Harvey also claims operators can save labor dollars since Presseal boxes don't require assembly.

"Everybody will say, 'We've got drivers sitting here who can assemble boxes,'" Harvey said. "But the fact is it takes time, and it's slow, tedious work, so it's a cost center. We believe it costs roughly 3 to 5 cents per box in labor alone to put those together."

Storing leftover slices is a snap as well, as the box top can be folded into a half moon, resealed and stored easily.

Problem solver, or better mousetrap?

Ostrander said he likes the round box idea, and that it's definitely a viable option for the industry. Selling a new box isn't Harvey's challenge, he said, instead it's getting people to see the value in something new when the old model works pretty well.

"What you've got to remember is that people aren't buying boxes, they're buying solutions," Ostrander said. "When corrugated boxes came out, we bought a solution. They required a lot less labor to put together (than clayboard), the corrugate insulated much better and there wasn't a crushing problem. It solved so many problems we had back then."

Arvco's France wonders if operators will view the new box as a solution to any current box problems, or merely a cool gimmick. He has seen the box, but insisted he didn't get to study it closely. "We were sent a sample, and it looked kind of interesting, but to be fair, I have to say that I didn't really put a lot of thought into it."

France said the fact that the box is a space saver is very interesting, but "is that such an advantage (to operators) that it takes up a little less cube?

John Harvey of Harvco Technologies, and inventor of the Presseal round pizza box.

I don't know if that would make a lot of difference to them."

France also said the late-'70s launch of corrugated pizza boxes was fortuitously timed because delivery also was growing exponentially. Today, however, he sees no similarly pressing need.

"For these guys to be successful, they've got to justify it to Mr. and Mrs. Pizza Shop and to the distributors," France said. "The operators need a reason to change, and the distributor has to create a whole bunch of new slots for these boxes if he gets them. Selling to those channels is one heck of a big chore."

Still, as the man who scaled a very similar mountain in order to sell corrugated boxes to pizza operators, France extended a little optimism.

"Just because I've said these things doesn't mean they don't have a viable product; they very well could," France said. "If I were in their spot, the first thing I'd do is try to sell the large chains on it. I'd talk to Pizza Hut, Domino's and Papa John's and those people in that arena."

Harvey agreed that he and Graylex have their work cut out for them. Finding a manufacturer to invest in retooling their production line in order to make the Presseal box is perhaps the largest hurdle to clear. After that, he believes market exposure will fuel demand.

Ostrander believes Harvey's group will need another Arvco-France-like combination.

"Back then, Steve's boss spent the money necessary to make those boxes without any customers," Ostrander said. "All they had were handshakes and promises and the guts to try something new. And it turned out to be tipping point for the entire industry."

Topics: Operations Management

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