The Diversity of Dinnerware

Dinnerware presents an opportunity for the distributor sales representative. It is a product which is reordered because of damage, breakage and wear. It not only fills the role of a serving utensil, it is an element in the design of the foodservice operation. As part of the decor, dinnerware is frequently replaced when the operation is remodeled or renovated. That is every five to seven years for the average commercial operation. The market is big. The majority of operations above the fast-food level use permanent dinnerware of china, plastic, glass, metal or wood.


Although many DSRs shy away from dinnerware because of the confusing number of patterns, shapes, sizes and manufacturers, a bit of study is all that is needed to gain mastery of this line. The manufacturers’ literature and specification sheets provide most of the information needed.

Around a Long Time

The use of some kind of utensil to hold food for eating occurred long before man’s recorded history. Some archaeologists speculate that tree bark was the first food-holding utensil. Then, about 6,000 years ago, some early man found mud at the edge of a fire baked hard, and pottery was discovered, and then came bronze. Egyptians were eating from bronze plates and cups 5,000 years ago. As man’s ability to carve with bronze tools developed, so probably did the use of wood for serving utensils.

Glass came shortly after bronze. The Egyptians used it first for cosmetic jars and later for food containers. The Greeks and Romans both used glassware for serving food.

The discovery of iron, about 1000 B.C., soon resulted in that metal was being used for dinnerware. And royalty in Rome ate from plates of gold and silver.

The Phoenicians, traveling widely from their trading centers in the Mediterranean, carried pottery, glass, bronze and iron dinnerware from Scandinavia all the way to the shores of India.

Vitrified china started in the Far East, in China, naturally, about 900 A.D., during the T’sang Dynasty, as a way to insure sanitary serving of food. Marco Polo brought samples of vitrified china back from his trip to Cathay in the 1200s. Italian craftsmen, although unable to reproduce it, named it after the translucent, glossy mollusk shell called porcellana. In Europe it is still called porcelain. The English gave it the name we use in this country.

plastic dinnerware

Plastic is a recent entry into the dinnerware market. Although early plastics (celluloid) existed in the 19th century, the first plastic dinnerware was developed for the Navy during World War II to cut down on dinnerware breakage during maneuvers and battle. It was made of melamine, the same material used today for most permanent plastic dinnerware.

More recent is the development of high-density china using aluminum oxide to provide thinner pieces with higher breakage resistance than conventional china. Another development–this time from research in the space program–has been caramelized glass, which is stronger than china but is similar in appearance.

China Dinnerware

Conventional china is manufactured from a mixture of clay (kaolin), flint (quartz), and feldspar fired at extremely high temperatures. It is called “vitrified’ from the Latin word for glass, vitrum, referring to the hard, “glassy’ appearance.

In foodservice china, decoration is then applied to the piece, usually as a decal. Then the piece is covered with a glaze fired at a lower temperature. Firing turns the glaze transparent and bonds it to the surface of the piece, providing high-abrasion resistance, protecting the pattern and making the china impervious to water.

There are more choices in china than in any other foodservice tableware. Some estimates range as high as 4,000 different combinations of shapes, sizes, weights and capacities. In addition, there are hundreds of patterns and decorations produced as standard items. China may also be customized to the operator’s use with special “custom’ patterns and decoration available through the manufacturer.

Foodservice or “restaurant’ china has always been characterized by its heavy weight and thick cross section. Recently, however, a new type of china has been making inroads. This is alumina china, made with aluminum oxide instead of the traditional flint. The resulting high-density product is thinner and lighter than regular foodservice china, and is more resistant to chipping and breaking.

Plastic Dinnerware

The melamine plastic dinnerware developed during World War II was thick and clumsy looking and it had a lusterless surface. Its major advantages were a resistance to breakage about 30 times that of the existing china, and it was lighter. It was, however, susceptible to abrasion, particularly from the cutting edges of knives. It developed a film from food and drink residues, particularly in cups, and color selection was limited.

Continuing development has resulted in a product available in a wide range of qualities. The best plastic dinnerware has a high, tough gloss, resistance to abrasion and filming, and is offered in a wide range of colors and patterns.

Plastic dinnerware is manufactured by molding and heat curing melamine plastic then a special melamine plastic. Then a special melamine-impregnated paper “foil’ containing the decoration (pattern) is applied and bonded to the body of the piece. The pattern is imbedded in the plastic.

Glass Dinnerware

Glass dinnerware comes in two types: conventional, heat-resistant glass and caramelized glass. The caramelized glass, the most like china, is the more expensive of the two.

Glass Dinnerware

Heat resistant glass has a glossy, translucent appearance, far more shiny than china. It is molded from molten glass, allowed to cool, and then decorated with glass ceramic enamels or stains. The pieces are then fired at high temperature. This bonds the pattern to the piece and tempers the glass so it is more shatter-resistant. Tempered glass will break into chunks rather than shatter into sharp shards. Tempered glass is also more resistant to heat and less prone to chipping.

Caramelized glass is also molded from molten glass. But the pieces are then cycled through a series of heat-treating temperatures in a kiln to form fine-grained crystals, similar to china. The crystallization gives the dinnerware it’s white, opaque appearance and develops the strength characteristic of this product.

Decoration is applied by decal, similar to china, and the pieces are glazed and fired again to bond the glaze to the surface and to additionally strengthen the material.

Caramelized glass is about three times the strength of china and is highly resistant to chipping or breaking.

  • The high density of this material makes it possible to form dinnerware from it that is much thinner and lighter than conventional foodservice china. It also shows a high resistance to heat.
  • The traditional use of metal dinnerware has been for platters to serve steak and seafood, or for service plates. Conventional materials have been stainless steel and aluminum.

In recent years, however, a growing use of cast metal alloy dinnerware has developed with the growth of the “theme’ eating place. Alloy metal, a mixture of several different types, produces an appearance and finish similar to pewter, although at much less cost.

Two finishes are generally available, a rough, “cast’ surface, similar in appearance to old lead pewter, and a highly polished surface similar to a high tin pewter. Use of the rough surface is often employed to give an old English “pub’ appearance to the tabletop, while the polished alloy is often used in Early American type operations.

Almost all standard dinnerware places are available, plus many tankards, mugs and goblets. The major uses are still, however, for serving platters that can be heated in the oven, and as service plates.

Wood Dinnerware

Wood has been used widely over the years for salad bowls and in some operations for “planked’ steaks or seafood. One of the most common uses, however, has been as a tabletop cutting board for bread and cheese.

Wood Dinnerware

In a growing number of health departments the use of porous wood, particularly for use with meat and seafood and salads, has been banned. As a result, most of the wood used today in foodservice is surface impregnated with plastic resins to provide a sealed surface impervious to bacteria and resistant to abrasion and discoloration by moisture and chemicals.

Wooden salad bowls have been particularly popular since the coming of salad bars in all types of operations. Available in many styles and sizes, such bowls are resistant to dishwashing temperatures and chemicals in commercial operations.


The steadily increasing number of informal commercial eating places has caused a resurgence of individual cooking/serving pieces, called ovenware. These may be made of ceramic (pottery) or china, but are thick walled and highly resistant to thermal shock. As their name implies, they are intended to be used in the oven when cooking an item.

A variety of shapes intended for individual or double portions are available. Casseroles, with or without handles, ramekins, Welsh rarebit dishes, pot pie dishes, custard cups, shirred egg dishes, etc., are all intended to give an informal, cooked-to-order appearance to foodservice.

Note though that some manufacturers, although promoting their ovenware for use in heating food in an oven, warn against using it to “cook’ food. So be sure of what the operator intends to do with the pieces before recommending a line which will not stand prolonged cooking temperatures.

Knowing the Product

Know your product. The manufacturers’ literature provides almost all the information you will need to make informed suggestions to your customers and prospects, but there are some comparative data you should have:

In general, china, metal and caramelized glass is at the top end of the cost spectrum, with glass and plastic at the bottom. There are, however, so many grades and price ranges of each type of dinnerware, except possibly for metal and caramelized glass, that the price lines broadly overlap.

If a customer asks about “noise’ levels, the industry experience is that, although the sounds are different, the level of din from handling is the same for all full lines. Wood is quieter than the others but china clatters, plastic clicks, glass clinks and metal clangs.

In terms of weight (important in many operations, such as nursing homes and schools), heat resistant glass is the heaviest, metal alloy next, and then ovenware, conventional china, caramelized glass and high density china. Wood and plastic are the lightest.

When it comes to breakage and chip resistance, metal is the leader, followed by plastic and wood. Trailing these are caramelized glass, high density glass and regular china. Heat resistant glass is at the bottom. Ovenware’s resistance to breakage depends upon the materials from which it is made. China has the greatest resistance, ceramics the least.

Old timers may object to plastic because of “staining,’ which is really filming, since it does not penetrate the surface. All dinnerware is subject to filming, with glass the most resistant and plastic the least, but the difference is slight. In earlier plastic dinnerware with duller surfaces this was a problem. Special detergent solutions are now available which quickly remove such stains from any type of dinnerware.

For use in microwave ovens, both heat resistant glass and plastic are ideal. China, including high density alumina china, works well, unless a metallic band or pattern has been applied. Metal and caramelized glass cannot be used. Incidentally, most of the heating of dinnerware in a microwave comes from heat conducted from the food.

For insulating qualities, metal and heat resistant glasses are the worst, plastic and wood the best. China, caramelized china and ovenware probably fall somewhere in between. If food is desired hot or cold at the table, it is recommended that plates be heated or cooled before serving.

All manufacturers suggest that dinnerware’s not be mixed, since it gives an unmatched, unprofessional appearance to the tabletop. In addition, mixing pieces from different manufacturers may increase breakage and chipping.

Selling Dinnerware

Know who your prospects are before making your calls. “Restaurant’ china, of course, is used at every level of foodservice, from the fast-service operation to the finest white tablecloth establishment. It is also used by the broad spectrum of semi-commercial and institutional feeders. There is such a broad choice of china that there is a price range for almost everyone in the industry.

High density china use is clustered in the medium to higher ticket operations. Ceramitized china has been competing with it in all but the “traditional’ white tablecloth setting, and it is gaining penetration even there.

  • Plastic is clustered from the low end commercial operation to the middle level. It is used extensively by airlines and in schools and health care institutions where weight is a factor.
  • Metal is in use primarily in theme operations, although some high-end white tablecloth establishments are switching to metal service plates.
  • Wood is used primarily for bowls at salad bars and for cutting boards where bread and/or cheese are cut by the patron at the table.
  • Heat-resistant glass is price competitive with plastic but is used in family restaurantand is moving up the prestige ladder as a greater variety of decoration becomes available.
  • Sell dinnerware as a decor factor. After all it presents the food to the patron, and the impression it makes sets the image of the operation.

Use presentation. Don’t simply bring in an illustrated spec sheet or a few pieces of the pattern. Set a table with a full table setting, using not only the new pattern you are trying to sell, but new glassware, new flatware and the “stationary’ items from sugar to ashtray.

Then, right next to it, set another table with all the items now being used in the prospect’s operation. Let the prospect see the difference! Unless the operation is brand new, the comparison will be dramatic.

Remember that dinnerware is reordered as it is broken, lost or damaged in the operation. Keep an eye on the condition of the dinnerware as you visit your customers. Make them aware of chipping, crazing, abrasion, filming. After all, their patrons will!