Imagine that it’s dinner time and you’re ordering takeout from your favorite restaurant. You place the order, and a few minutes later you swing by to pick up your food, neatly packaged in single-use containers, and head for home. Afterward, those takeout containers end up in the trash. What if, instead, your meal could come in endlessly reusable containers?
That’s an option that restaurants and diners have thanks to Forever Ware, a startup based in Minneapolis that has saved roughly 10,000 containers from landfills in roughly a year and a half of operation. “I think we have less than 1,300 containers in circulation, so about 1,000 containers has reduced 10,000 containers from the landfill,” says co-founder Natasha Gaffer.
A software engineer by trade, Gaffer got the idea while living in a converted school bus with her partner (and current Forever Ware team member), Nick Krumholz. “Why don’t restaurants just let us borrow a container and bring it back?” she recalls wondering. “I thought, you know what, I need a purpose and want to work on something that I’m passionate about. So, I decided to start a company around this problem I had experienced myself — getting take out in all these disposable containers and then having to manage all the trash.” With Nolan Singroy on as the third co-founder, Forever Ware was born.
Restaurants pay for deposits on Forever Ware’s reusable cups and containers, which are mostly made of recycled stainless steel with silicone lids. Forever Ware offers insulated cups and bowls for hot drinks and hot meals, and three sizes of rectangular containers for food that doesn’t need to be kept at temperature. Along with the containers comes Forever Ware’s platform and proprietary tracking system that allows restaurants to check out the containers to their customers for a $5 deposit per container. Customers then return the containers to any participating restaurant to get a new takeout order or their deposit back. Today, Forever Ware has signed on five restaurants across the Twin Cities.
Some of Forever Ware's reusable containers (Photo courtesy Forever Ware)
“Most people say, hey, I’m kicking in $20,” says Jimmy Layer, general manager for Wise Acre Eatery in south Minneapolis, a Forever Ware partner restaurant. Repeat customers will just leave a deposit and continue using the vessels every time they order take out, he says. The system is not just better for the environment — it’s a better takeout experience, he adds. “Once a guest gets involved, they use it consistently because the food travels better.”
Soon after Layer reached out to Forever Ware on Instagram about a year ago, Wise Acre’s system was “up and running right away,” he says. “Financially it’s a small investment up front, but it definitely replaces other costs.” Layer adds that many of his customers shied away from to-go orders, even during the pandemic, because of the waste. Now, with Forever Ware, they’re interested in to-go as an option again.
Wise Acre currently has about 40 containers in its “fleet.” “For us, it’s a no-brainer. We’re always looking for opportunities to be a more sustainable business,” he says.
Once spring hits, Gaffer says that she expects the company to have refined its system to be bug-free and will be ready to bring on higher-volume partners to join Forever Ware’s five current partners. The current partners were selected because of their variety in offerings — one is a coffee shop, another is a private chef, two are restaurants, and another is an over-the-counter cafe. “We’ve chosen each of those businesses for a specific purpose — to teach us something” about the variety of needs and use cases for the steel containers.
Unlike most start ups, funding hasn’t been much of a problem for the young company. Much of Forever Ware’s work has been grant funded from organizations like local startup accelerator Launch Minnesota and even Minneapolis’ Hennepin County. “The county is really interested in working with us to help achieve their waste prevention goals,” Gaffer says.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.