"Good" Napkins versus "Bad" Napkins

We've all been there... reaching for a napkin with sloppy hands only to find some flimsy, shreddable thing that disintegrates in your hand, and you find yourself using five, six, seven... just to stop this onslaught of "mess" you've suddenly 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?

Superficially, the cost/benefit analysis of napkins is easy to understand.  Napkins are a necessary commodity, therefore a necessary expense.  Try to minimize the expense by getting the minimum specs possible.  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

The significance of differing plys is often understated.  While most people understand that a three-ply napkin may feel "better" than a one-ply, the comparison often stops there.  The concept of "wet strength" 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 better wet strength, and better resists breaking than its one-ply counterpart.  More fibers = more strength.  More strength = fewer tiny pieces of tissue to coat your sticky hands during a particular messy meal.

But what about absorbency? Why do three-ply napkins absorb more thoroughly than one-ply napkins?  And why should I care?

We care because science.  We care because the gaps between the tissue layers in a three ply napkin trap water molecules.  We care because polar water molecules are drawn up between tissue fibers through capillary action and surface tension, allowing molecules to flow against the pull of gravity, away from the floor, away from your customer's hands.  We care because the water molecules trapped between the plys of your napkins can no longer wreak havoc on your hardwood surfaces, or your customer's hands.

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.  They make them thicker.  They use more, more, more, increasing the actualized ply, until their hands are clean and your dispenser is empty, because 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're going to wake up with a stiff neck.

One-ply napkins may be cheaper, but they will disappear faster and you will be buying 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 can be part of the fun.  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.

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