When 7-Eleven stores in Texas suddenly needed to put their hot chicken legs in some kind of bag — thank you, COVID! — they had to find the right little bags to put them in. ASAP. So they made a desperate call to Fischer Paper Products in Antioch, 50 miles north of Chicago
Typically, it takes 10 to 12 weeks for Fischer to get a new type of bag to a customer, assuming it isn’t one of the thousand varieties they stock. There is design, then creating prototypes, then testing them. Fischer keeps half a dozen fast-food warmers in their break room for product testing.
“If the food is going to be sitting in this package in a warming oven for an hour, the materials have to hold up to heat or grease,” said Joshua Fischer, company president and grandson of the founder.
In this case, they got the bag designed, tested and shipped to Texas in three weeks.
Restaurants, in a two-year-plus state of continual emergency during the society-jarring disruptions of the pandemic — customers staying home, supply chains tied in knots — will gather to blink at each other, celebrate their survival and plot out a future at McCormick Place starting Saturday, for the National Restaurant Association Show, the first in three years.
When the public thinks of the restaurant business, it imagines waitresses taking orders and cooks muttering over sizzling grills and kids behind counters robotically piling bags of burgers and fries onto trays. But that is just the tip of the iceberg, the visible part. The bulk of the industry are companies supplying those order pads and spatulas and, with Fischer, the bags the food goes in.
At Fischer, “90% or better of our business is in food service,” said Bill Fischer, vice president of marketing and another grandson of William A. Fischer, who started the company in 1972. “Those needs of the food service users are what we’re focused on, which can be different than retail.”
If you drive up to the brand-new — opened Halloween, 2020 — Fischer headquarters, as I did Wednesday, your first thought might be: “That is the most beautiful factory I’ve ever seen in my life.” The outside in gray and black, with huge windows and pillars of natural stone. I asked Joshua Fischer why they went to the trouble and expense of making it so pretty.
“To me it’s about the workforce,” he said. “To help us attract the best and brightest people.”
We talked handles. As a consumer, I said, it seems that bags with handles know when there’s glass inside, and fail accordingly, out of spite.
“They gotta work,” said Bill Fischer, noting that the company stress-tests its bags. “Oftentimes it’s not the handle itself that’s failing, it’s where it’s attached to the bag. One of the things we’re doing is, we put an extra patch on these.”
That extra patch is a rectangle of reinforcing paper, glued over where the handles join the bag, which of course adds to the cost and difficulty of the process, already complicated by the addition of that handle.
A bag machine is essentially a modified web press — rolls of paper spool in one side, are printed with graphics, then folded to the right size, cut, sometimes perforated. If it’s a small, flat bag — think french fries — forming the bottom is a simple matter of folding over an edge and applying glue. A larger, flat-bottomed bag — think groceries — is a three-dimensional shape that must be created, then folded, and those pesky handles added. Thus, a flat bag can cost less than a penny; a shopping bag with handles, 20 times more.
The big trend in bags, as in everything else, is environmentalism and recycling. Grocery store bags are already natural, as the color reveals.
“Pulp comes from trees. Trees are brown,” said Joshua Fischer, showing off a standard grocery bag. “This is a natural Kraft paper, the natural color of the pulp turned to paper, whereas this is bleached to get white.”
Bags are bleached less frequently.
“In the past half-dozen years, demand has definitely shifted from bleached to natural,” he said.
Increasingly, laws also demand fast-food bags to be recycled — California requires carryout bags be 40% post-consumer content. But recycling weakens paper, meaning bags have to be made of thicker stock.
“When you recycle it, it loses its strength,” said Fischer. “If you put a fiber under a microscope when it’s virgin, it has a nice uniform shape to it. After you recycle it time and time again, it gets shorter, fluffier, the fibers don’t integrate as nicely when you’re forming a sheet, so a virgin pulp sheet is going to be quite a bit stronger than a recycled content sheet.”
Innovation helps. Fischer has had great success with putting a little clear window on the side, showing the profile of a stack sandwich.
“You can see what kind of sandwich it is from the side, through the window as it sits in the warmer,” said Bill Fischer. “And it’s got perforations to let the steam out. We’re the only ones making something exactly like this.”
And all container companies have been searching for that COVID-19 delivery holy grail: something to keep french fries hot and crispy while DoorDash inches them toward your home. The search continues.
The 175,000-square-foot Fischer factory made 25 million pounds of paper into 2.2 billion bags last year, and should hit 2.5 billion this year. It has 17 lines doing pinch-bottom bags and three, soon to be five, doing flat-bottomed bags. It’s almost shockingly clean for an industrial space. They have room to double.
Each line is built around a bag-making machine, which turn out from 20,000 to 140,000 bags an hour. Some are slower, two-color veterans. (The oldest is from 1949.) Others are new six-color machines made by Garant Maschinen from Germany or Weber in Green Bay. The line is mostly automated except for where the bags come out. They must be grabbed and stuffed in boxes by human hands.
“People have tried for a long time to engineer that out of the process,” said Bill Fischer.
Fischer has not suffered during the pandemic, but their customers have.
“During the first year of COVID, our volume dropped 20%,” said Josh Fischer. “But that bounced back, all of that and more, the following year. ... If you’re a restaurant and you’re thriving, you have to do take-out and delivery.”
The future is capacious for bags.
“The volume’s going through the roof,” said Fischer. “We plan on growing 25% a year.”