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A Round Pie in a Square Box

Mismatched pairs of simple things can inspire ingenious solutions

Henry Petroski

Building Better Pizza Packaging

But nothing is perfect in design or use, and so the common pizza box also has its limitations, shortcomings and downright failures, which tend to be accepted and adjusted to by proprietors and customers alike. But few flaws escape the eyes of inventors, designers and engineers, who are always looking to improve on things. Yet even among these groups, the fact that a square box is used for a round pie is hardly worth further comment, other than to mention that there have been evolutionary changes that have addressed the problem—if it can be called even that—of the mismatch in geometry. Domino’s Pizza developed its polygonal box that better approximates the circular geometry of its contents, and there are circular pizza containers made of Styrofoam and other moldable materials. Such extravagances might be justified by branding, marketing and targeted advertising objectives, but they are seldom affordable to the small, independently owned pizza parlor.

There are nongeometrical problems with the pie-in-a-box concept that do lend themselves to simple and inexpensive solutions. But these kinds of problems tend to be invisible to or ignored by all but the most persnickety of inventors. One such problem manifests itself when the top of the box in which a hot pizza resides sags excessively because of the softening effect of the steamy environment inside or because something heavy is placed atop the box. The problem can also arise when the boxed pizza is transported in a car that rattles over railroad tracks or bounces in and out of potholes. When the box is opened after such a ride, more cheese can be found stuck to the underside of the box top than remains on the pizza itself. Tolerant customers might scrape the cheese off the cardboard and redistribute it on the pie, but inventors can be intolerant of everything but their own inventions.

2011-07PetroskiFB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe inventor Carmela Vitale was evidently bothered enough by the problem of the box top eating the cheese off the pie to devise a solution. As she explained in her patent, which was issued in 1985, cheaply made and disposable containers, “particularly those used to deliver pizza pies or large cakes or pies, comprise boxes with relatively large covers formed of inexpensive board material” that have a tendency “to sag or to be easily depressed at their center portions so that they may damage or mark the pies or cakes during storage or delivery.” Her solution was “to provide a lightweight and inexpensive device,” which would be molded “from one of the plastics which is heat resistant such as the thermo set plastics and which will resist temperatures of as high as about 500°F.” The form that she preferred, and the one that is illustrated in the patent, is a utilitarian tripod, a minimalist three-legged stool. In her description of the so-called “preferred embodiment,” she explained that the legs should have “a minimal cross section to minimize any marking of the protected article” and also “to minimize the volume of plastic required” and thereby keep the cost low.

Curiously, Vitale called her little device a “package saver” and used that term also as the title of her patent. In fact, as she herself recognized in the claims of her patent, the benefit of the tripod is in “preventing damage to the packaged food article by the cover.” Thus it is not the disposable package that is being saved, but its contents. The device has since been appropriately renamed a “pizza saver,” though few people who admire the thing for so effectively saving their pizza from being scalped of its cheese know it by that name. In fact, it is most popularly referred to as an all-purpose “little thingy,” which in context everyone understands. People also appreciate that with its thin, spindly legs it has a very small footprint on the pizza and consumes very little of the pie itself.

Although possessing no grace or elegance of form, Vitale’s answer to the problem of the cheese-eating box top is considered an elegant solution. It has no unnecessary embellishments. Clearly, the small and inexpensive device was meant to be as disposable as the pizza box, but not everyone who saw the pizza saver could throw it away. Especially people engaged in arts and crafts tended to wash it off and put it away for some future use that they were sure it would someday have. One woman whose hobby was decorating eggs found that turning it upside down made it serve as an ideal egg easel. She did have one complaint, however, and that was that the little thingy was rather expensive, a fault that she attributed to having to pay for its elaborate packaging, namely, a large pizza in a larger box.

As elegant a solution as the pizza saver might be, not everyone saw it to be without structural flaws of its own. One inventor identified a critical shortcoming—especially when the pizza saver came in the form of a dollhouse-size three-legged table with a solid round top. How was it to be packaged when purchased not one at a time but in bulk, for the pizzeria that wanted to secure a supply of pizza savers had to buy them in quantities of a thousand. The way the savers typically came was loose in a large corrugated-cardboard box, and, as with a box of cornflakes, the contents tended to settle during shipping. Still, the large box could take up an inordinate amount of space in a cramped pizza shop. The inventor’s solution to packing pizza savers with flat table tops more compactly was to incorporate into the top holes into which the legs of a second saver could be inserted. A series of savers nested in such a way would naturally take up less space than a random jumble of them. What the inventor seemed to ignore, however, was the labor that would be involved in nesting the tripods, thereby adding to the cost of something whose price was supposed to be kept as low as possible. Inventors sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture.

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