Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, but perhaps another proverb is better suited for this particular invention story, something like—ask and you shall receive.
Michael Steiner is a regular at World Pizza, which should say a lot about the pizzeria located in the International District. Steiner is a native New Yorker so he doesn’t deem just any pizza place good enough to return to, especially on this coast.
Back in 2016, Steiner stopped by World Pizza with his sons after a soccer tournament. Owner Aaron Crosleycone can’t exactly recall how they got on the subject, but on that warm July day, he told Steiner how much he’d love to see a reusable pizza box on the market. The current corrugated cardboard boxes take time to fold and end up in the dumpster more often than the yard waste bin.
The tradition of the cardboard boxes goes back only to the '60s and the founder of Domino’s. Before that, pizza places used paper boxes, which weren’t sturdy enough to handle the piping hot pies.
Crosleycone estimates that his pizzeria goes through at least 55 boxes a day. An Atlantic article from 2011 reported that the U.S. sells about three billion pizzas a year. Their containers are technically recyclable, but not if they absorb any grease.
The pizzeria owner figured a reusable pizza box was a simple wish that would stay that way. But Steiner had other plans. The next two years, he worked on perfecting a pizza box that would meet Crosleycone’s needs.
After six months of research and design and figuring out what materials to use, Steiner faced the uphill battle of finding a manufacturer to make the box a reality. Most of the companies he approached in the U.S. rejected his plans. It took an international and family effort for his idea to come to fruition.
Steiner’s wife, who is from northern China, roped her older sister into the process. Through late night calls, using his wife as a translator, Steiner worked with his sister-in-law, who traveled around China to find a manufacturer for the pizza box.
“The difference in China is that people will say ‘yes I can do that,’ much more quickly,” he says. “And then you have to wait a little while to find out, can they really do it?”
The pizza boxes needed to be food safe, flexible enough to lay flat for shipping but sturdy enough to transport hot pies and made of polypropylene that is still recyclable.
One year later and Steiner shows up at World Pizza with the first prototype. Crosleycone was surprised but elated. To figure out what needed to be tweaked, he handed out the boxes to his regulars for free in return for feedback. Steiner made the adjustments and after another year he presented the final design.
In early July, World Pizza started offering Steiner’s boxes for $5 plus a free slice. So far Crosleycone says they’ve been a hit with regulars.
Steiner hopes that more pizza places will become interested in the boxes. He made a “business” trip back to New York to try out the boxes there. To his delight, the pizzerias he visited with his sons loved the idea of a reusable box.
“There’s literally millions of these boxes every single day across the world, so if we can take a cut or slice out of it—maybe pun intended—we’ll be making a good dent,” Crosleycone said.