Cooked French fries don't travel well, regardless of how you slice them.
When fresh, the salty side dish is hot and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. But as an add-on to your delivery order, they often arrive cold, mushy and not as pleasurable to eat. Possible solutions have been tried in recent years, such as special cooking oils and perforated packaging designed to keep fries crispy for longer. Yet, the problem persists.
Now, the pandemic seems to have given birth to conditions for another company to take a stab at it.
SAVRpak, a San Juan, Calif.-based start-up, developed peel and stick patches designed to absorb condensation inside food containers, thus slowing the rate at which fries and other foods deteriorate between a restaurant kitchen and your front door. This month, the company won an "Innovation Challenge" award sponsored by Procter & Gamble, which included a cash prize, investment opportunities and mentorship provided by the legacy household products brand.
At the center of SAVRpak are packets that restaurants, food processing companies and customers can toss in with cooked and uncooked meals. The brand's secret sauce is temperature control.
Inside takeout containers, the packets look like a thick, white sticker that's cold to the touch. The outside is made of plant pulp. On the inside, there's a pocket of ice. The product is attached using food-grade adhesive, and it relies on thermodynamics to keep hot meals and salads from going soggy.
"If you look at the project, it looks very easy, but there is a lot of science behind it," said Bill Birgen, an aerospace engineer who founded SAVRpak in 2018. "I'm basically using the same tools that I use on a rocket or an aircraft."
Trapped water vapor is the primary reason French fries and other hot foods go mushy on the way to your doorstep. Hot foods continue to emit moisture after cooking, and when the foods are packaged, the steam accumulates. As the container's air temperature drops, it reaches a dew point where the air can no longer hold all of the steam. That creates water droplets inside the container's lid, and those droplets dampen hot food.
Restaurants freeze SAVRpaks, and when they are placed inside takeout containers, the packets alter the dew point and absorb some of the loose moisture floating around the container. That allows the food to retain its intended form for longer, the company says.
Internal testing showed that the packets reduce humidity in a food container by up to 45 percent and can extend the shelf life of packaged foods by up to two weeks, the company says. It may have a slight impact on how hot your food is. SAVRpak lowers the ambient temperature inside a container by up to 5 percent.
Still, the company claims it "will not make hot food cold."
Birgen developed the first iteration of SAVRpaks more than 10 years ago as a personal convenience to keep his daily salads from wilting before he could eat them. Food delivery wasn't as prominent back then, so the market for his idea wasn't mature enough, he said.
After years of tweaking the product and receiving a patent in 2018, the start-up was prepared to launch in February 2020. Restaurants didn't bite immediately as they faced revenue losses caused by widespread coronavirus lockdowns. The business eventually picked up, with the pandemic spotlighting the need for better food delivery as companies adjusted to a new normal, Birgen said.
Almost a year later, food delivery is booming. Though restaurants experienced a nearly 50 percent drop in foot traffic in 2020, delivery-meal sales via services such UberEats, Postmates and Door Dash soared, up 138 percent in December alone, according to the credit card transaction data firm Second Measure. French fries were the most popular takeout item, according to UberEats.
Restaurants in the San Diego area already use SAVRpaks, and food distributors including US Foods and Gordon Food Service as well as the restaurant chain Hooters are testing them, the company says.
The start-up plans to expand by the spring, setting its sights on possible trial runs at stores such as Walmart and Target along with produce packaging plants and catering companies. It is producing more than 2 million units a month in Asia and expects to scale up to 15 million by the end of the year.
Prices are expected to start around $2 for a pack of 10.
SAVRpak is not the first to try to solve the issue of soggy delivery food. In 2018, the potato processing company Lamb Weston released a special batter and perforated packaging for restaurant chains that it claims can keep fries crispy for nearly an hour. In 2019, the packaging company Novolex unveiled containers with holes to let hot air escape.
SAVRpak differs in that it's meant for more than just hot foods, and the company wants to sell directly to consumers, who could toss the moisture control items into their lunchboxes and Tupperware containers.
"Plenty of people prepare their lunches and meals together in a batch. I was making a batch of salads for a whole week, and they would go bad before I could eat them," Birgen said. "This will keep them crispy."