We’ve all been there… reaching for a napkin with sloppy hands only to find some flimsy, shreddable thing that disintegrates in your hand. You find yourself using five, six, seven… just to stop the mess you’ve formed, bits of tissue now everywhere.
That, my friends, is a bad napkin.
In theory, no napkin is inherently “bad;” they all serve different purposes. Why then, do we so often encounter the above situation?
What Makes a Good Napkin?
Superficially, the cost/benefit analysis of napkins is easy to understand. A “good” napkin fulfills its purpose as a necessary commodity. It is also a necessary expense. Try to minimize the expense by getting the minimum specs possible. You have a good napkin and everyone is happy.
Except probably not.
Napkins are not created equal. You have one, two, three plys. You have beverage napkins, dinner napkins, linen-like guest towels… You have custom printed, or blanks. The correct napkin for you correlates with your product, and the ambiance you wish to set.
A high-end establishment needs napkins that match the desired clientele. A one-ply semi-crepe beverage napkin, while perfect for the casual neighborhood bar, stands out like a sore thumb if your clients make six figures. Similarly, a custom printed three-ply beverage napkin, while a bit much for that same corner bar, perfectly matches the ambiance of a five-star hotel, and can increase the perceived value of a budding fine dining restaurant.
But Why Don’t My Napkins Work?
People often understate the significance of ply. While most people understand that a three-ply napkin feels “better” than a one-ply, the comparison often stops there. The concept of “wet strength,” or even different absorbency, is ignored completely.
Wikipedia defines wet strength as “a measure of how well the web of fibers holding the paper together can resist a force of rupture when the paper is wet.” Understandably, wet strength increases with increasing plys. A three-ply napkin has higher wet strength. It resists breaking better than its one-ply counterpart. More fibers = more strength. More strength = fewer tiny pieces of tissue to coat your sticky hands during a messy meal.
But what about absorbency? Why do three-ply napkins absorb better than one-ply napkins?
The gaps between the tissue layers in a three ply napkin trap water molecules. The more tissue layers, the more gaps to trap water molecules. Molecularly, capillary action and surface tension pull water molecules up between tissue fibers. Water molecules flow against the pull of gravity, away from the floor, and away from your customer’s hands. The trapped water molecules no longer wreak havoc on your hardwood surfaces, or your customer’s hands.
(To learn more, see: Molecular Napkin Science: Absorbency)
And without those extra plys? Your customers don’t just accept and move on; they grumble and they load up. They double the “bad” napkins, making them thicker. They use more, more, more, increasing the actualized ply, until their hands are clean and your dispenser is empty.
We need those plys to make our napkins work. A thin napkin is the flat pillow at a cheap hotel; you can rest your head, maybe take a nap for awhile, but unless you double up, or fold it over, you will wake up with a stiff neck.
One-ply napkins may be cheaper, but they disappear faster. You will be restocking your one-ply napkins significantly more often than simply providing two- or three-ply napkins from the start.
So is there a “bad” napkin? Are all one-ply napkins “bad?” Well, no. Embossing increases absorbency, although only partially.
But we return to our main point. No napkin is bad; one must pick the napkin that best suits their needs. One-ply napkins are perfect for places where a napkin is nice, though not required, and unlikely to be required heavily. Think of drinks under cocktails. Or the coffee cake provided in a hotel or bank lobby. One can even argue that one-ply napkins are best for cheap burger or barbecue places, where the act of getting messy is part of the experience. Ultimately, the decision is on you. Does your ply make sense for your product? For your business? Will it benefit, or frustrate, your customers? Will your one-ply order ultimately cost more for reorders than simply ordering a thicker napkin? That’s a decision for you to make.
As for me, I’ll be waiting around for my stack of fine napkins.