While it may be romantic to imagine innovation stems from inspiration, most often it is need that drives change, whether it’s consumer demand, regulatory requirements or important societal shifts. We seem to be in such a time right now. Between consumer buying patterns and workforce demands, the complexion of entire channels such as foodservice have changed when it comes to what is needed from suppliers, whether it’s new products to entice consumers or new operator-friendly formulations and packaging.

It feels as though this industry sits on the precipice of something new, and it’s exciting and scary at the same time. Those who prove they can innovate and adapt have the chance to soar to new heights, while those who don’t, for whatever reason, will suffer.   

In my story, “Lead the Pack,” a history of packaging innovation and a look at what’s to come in honor of Sosland Publishing Co.’s Centennial, I was struck by how often this happens in the industry. A need arises — preserve the freshness of sliced bread, increase throughput, improve recyclability — and a new material or machine is created to meet that need. Some in the industry balk. “That will never catch on,” the naysayers exclaim. But here we are, buying sliced bread bagged on automatic bread baggers into polyethylene bags. None of these baking mainstays initially were ever expected to gain traction. It leaves one to wonder … what are we currently overlooking because it seems too far-fetched?

One of today’s “precipice needs” revolves around sustainable packaging solutions, something consumers aren’t letting go. And despite foodservice’s recovery from the pandemic, takeout isn’t going anywhere. And with that comes the need for packaging that will deliver food hot and dine-in ready whether delivered by the restaurant itself or third-party services. E-commerce, similarly, has demanded new packaging solutions. And automating to reduce labor challenges and increase flexibility is another need spurring the industry to innovate new solutions.

MAP packaging, robotics and new materials that are more environmentally friendly hold great promise to resolving many of these challenges, but all carry their own issues. These can be costly or imperfect solutions that require policy overhaul and even shifts in thinking from the collective society. However, with the pressure today’s industry faces, bakers have shown a willingness to rethink or recalibrate ROI targets and justify making the investment. What could be more exciting than to see what the next “sliced bread” will be?