Catering: special report

 - March 28, 2007, 11:22 AM

In his eight-volume work, Physiology of Taste, French lawyer, magistrate, politician and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Animals feed themselves, men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.” He wrote those words in 1825, and still they contain a certain truth, particularly in the cabin of today’s business aircraft.

With rare exception, the cuisine served aboard these airplanes is provided by caterers who are well aware of Brillat-Savarin’s sentiments. But there is more at issue than taste. It is not so much whether the cuisine they offer would meet his exacting tastes and those of the contemporary gourmet. But in today’s world, does it also meet modern standards in terms of service, food-handling safety, security and cost?

There are still complaints from some passengers, passed along by flight attendants, that the quality of the cuisine provided by caterers is less than it should be. But it seems most of those meals are provided by restaurants or catering companies unaccustomed to the special requirements of business aviation. Those caterers with experience are aware that they are creating more than just a meal. “It isn’t a meal we’re sending out to that airplane,” explained Barry Saven, president of Los Angeles-based Air Gourmet. “It’s a dining experience.”

For caterers, it is often a question of maintaining high culinary standards for existing menu items, and at the same time keeping up with new trends.
Sushi continues to be popular, particularly among West Coast clients. Most of the large caterers specializing in meals for business aviation cabins have a sushi chef, either as a full-time staff member or on retainer, and shopping is done daily at local fish markets to ensure freshness.

In other parts of the country, the demand for sushi appears to be diminishing. Patricia Naus is chief flight attendant with T-Bird Aviation at DuPage Airport in West Chicago. She reports that among the charter operator’s clients, sushi is being replaced by more upscale sandwiches and exotic pizza toppings, such as chicken basil. And Naus, like other flight attendants, is seeing a continuing trend toward “healthier” dishes.

Specific diet plans are particularly popular, and many clients will express a desire for meals that meet the requirements of the Atkins, South Beach or Zone diets, among others. Air Culinaire in Arlington, Va., typically publishes spring, summer, fall and winter menu inserts and is now planning an insert specifically to address dietary concerns.

Rita’s In-flight Catering of Boston has created what owner Paul Rossi describes as “Atkins friendly” sandwich wraps. And he noted that not only are passengers more health conscious, but crews are also moving in the same direction, though perhaps more slowly. “Beef tips over noodles used to be one of the most popular items among pilots. It still is, but we’re getting more orders now for low-carbohydrate meals.”

“Even if you don’t find out up front, you can tell from the items ordered or from preparation requests that the customer has a specific diet program in mind,” said Naus.

On the other hand, while the spirit may be willing, the flesh is weak, and Naus said that sometimes the appetizer and main course ordered might meet an Atkins standard of Spartan restraint, but the chocolate dessert that follows is culinary debauchery.

Most of the larger caterers are well prepared to deal with the highly selective diets of vegetarians, vegans, naturopaths and others. “Being Los Angeles based, we have a large celebrity client base, and we’ve been doing diet meals for some time,” said Saven. “But I just got back from a gourmet food show in San Francisco, and the most obvious trend now is toward low-carbohydrate diets.”

Air Chef, which serves 20 markets at more than 80 airports in the U.S. through its network of catering partners, sees three current major trends. According to Air Chef CEO Scott Liston, they are “a move toward low-carbohydrate diets; growing demand for new gourmet meals that stretch the current boundaries; and a desire by customers to have caterers recreate specialty dishes from their favorite restaurants.”

With this latter trend in mind, Liston said Air Chef is developing a restaurant-affiliate program that will offer items from some of the nation’s top restaurants on the menus of some or all of the kitchens in the Air Chef network.

Even international politics can have an effect on catering choices. In the months leading to the Iraq war and a growing acrimony between the U.S. and French governments over the use of force, chefs at Rudy’s Inflight Catering near Teterboro Airport, N.J., received requests for “a non-French menu, from water and wine to cooking.”

A major concern among caterers and operators alike is allergies. It is not merely the possibility of a diner developing a case of hives as a minor allergic reaction to some particular ingredient in the food, but the possibility that the allergy might result in anaphylactic shock and a life-threatening situation.

Most caterers are careful to ask clients if any of the passengers or crew have any specific allergies. On request, Castle Kitchens will include a list of ingredients in an order. “We also audit those companies we buy from to ensure that if an item is labeled ‘no peanut products’ or ‘lactose-free,’ it is indeed as represented,” said aviation director Tony Cooper.

Operators also have a responsibility with respect to allergies. While flight departments are typically aware of the allergies of their frequent fliers, charter operators are not. Pfizer’s flight department maintains a glycemic index that allows one of its regular passengers who is a diabetic to maintain the proper blood sugar level.

Regional dishes continue to be popular and business aviation travelers are well aware of those specialty items. Being in the Boston market, Rita’s has a menu that always includes such items as lobster, clam chowder and cold seafood platters. GoGo Jet at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, N.C., offers bourbon-mustard pork medallions with apple chutney, turkey cutlets sautéed with Georgia pecans in brown pan gravy and low-country crab-au-gratin. For the more serious lover of Southern cuisine there is black-eyed pea ragout and, for dessert, shortbread banana pudding and bourbon pound cake.

Virginia Lippincott of Pfizer Aviation’s flight department at Morristown, N.J., warned against ordering regional specialties outside the regions of their birth. “Order taquitos [a popular Southwest specialty of Mexican origin] in New Jersey and you’re likely to get something more akin to Italian manicotti with tomato sauce.”

Service Is a Major Issue

Service continues to be a major issue in the industry, and probably the primary source of complaints by flight attendants, schedulers/dispatchers and pilots.

“The quality of the food is a given,” said one flight attendant, “but it also has to be delivered on time and packaged as requested, with no missing items.”

“The other day, we had already closed the cabin door when our catering order arrived,” said Pfizer flight attendant Karen Hall. “Most caterers deliver on time, but it’s still the single most consistent complaint we have about catering in general.”

Some caterers are still unaware of the physical restrictions of the business aircraft galley, according to flight attendants. Orders are delivered in packages too large for convenient storage in the small confines of a business jet cabin, or items are packed in containers not suitable for reheating, or packed in single containers when the order requested that the meals be individually pre-plated.

“We’ve learned to be very specific when we place a catering order,” said Pfizer’s Lippincott. “You’ve got to communicate, and you’ve got to be sure you and the person taking the order are speaking the same language.”

Most of the larger caterers are accustomed to the demands of business aviation. “If you’re in a smaller market, you may have to depend on restaurants or caterers who have no experience catering for business aviation. If this is the case, you’ve got to be even more specific about every aspect of the order.”

Being specific might also include inquiries as to the quality of the ingredients going into a particular recipe. “Some items may be seasonal, and out of season they could be either outrageously expensive or the quality below standards,” explained Hall.

“And I would much prefer a caterer to tell me the truth–‘the tomatoes are bad’–rather than simply fill the order. And I don’t want them substituting something without my approval.”

Food Safety and Food Handling

Few subjects are likely to raise the hackles on Erica Sheward so quickly as that of food safety. Under her leadership, Castle Kitchens is accredited by the Royal Institute of Public Health, and the company’s food chain of custody is so rigidly controlled that orders must be delivered directly to the aircraft and signed for by a crewmember. “A lot of people in this industry do not realize that anybody who accepted money for catering, including the flight attendant who placed the order and the FBO to whom it may have been delivered, assumes liability for the safe handling of that order,” said Sheward.

She condemns the idea of HACCP certification, pointing out that HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control point) is not a food safety standard but a food-safety management system created for restaurants, one that few caterers understand is “irrelevant in a restaurant format to the process of business aviation catering.”

At a restaurant, she explained, the food is prepared and 30 seconds later it’s served. By contrast, a meal for a business aircraft passenger is going to be “cooked, chilled, packed, transported to an FBO to be stored, then taken to the airplane, repacked and reheated in a microwave at 41,000 feet, and then eaten, sometimes as much as 18 hours later. To think that a claim of HACCP certification is any assurance of food-handling safety is complete rubbish.”

Sheward, who has testified in a number of court cases involving incidents of food poisoning, is currently in the process of writing a book on the subject of food safety in aviation. It is slated to be released later this year.

“The industry is consumed with the smoke screen that is ‘food safety.’ The reality,” she said, “is that caterers have never been less compliant, flight attendants never more confused about what they should or shouldn’t know and international operators so ignorant of their food safety and port-of-health liabilities outside their home country. Many would face a minimum two years in jail if caught conducting outside the U.S. what they consider to be standard procedures.”

Castle Kitchens offers a one-day training course, “In-flight Food Safety: Passenger Health and You.” The next session is scheduled this spring at the FlightSafety International Training Center in Savannah, Ga. For flight departments, Castle also offers a “Food Safety Flight Department Risk Assessment” course.

A few caterers offer similar, if less demanding, courses, but most welcome a client visit. Sheward suggested that serious visitors to a caterer ask many questions, including:

•    What is your process for buying and storing fresh items, such as vegetables, fruit, meat and fish?

•    May I see your certificates from the local boards of health?

•    May I see proof of insurance and the extent of coverage?

•    Do you have a quick-chill unit?

•    Are your delivery vehicles refrigerated?

•    What kind of chain-of-custody policy is in place?

•    What security measures do you have in place?

Security and the Terrorist Threat

Since 9/11, airport security has become a national preoccupation, and it has become a major concern of caterers as well.

Most of the well known caterers now keep their facilities locked and delivery drivers are equipped with cellphones or walkie-talkies. Background checks are required for new employees.

In fact, employee background checks at Rudy’s Inflight are done by the New Jersey State Police, which suits Rudy’s co-owner John Celentano just fine. He has also equipped his delivery vehicles with GPS-driven tracking devices. If the vehicle stops for a significant period en route, the monitoring company alerts Rudy’s so it can be determined whether security might have been breached. The company also installed 18 camera monitors throughout its facility, operating on a 24-hour continuous loop.

Like other caterers, Rudy’s welcomes visitors, but they must arrange the visit in advance and show proper identification before being escorted into the building. “We also warn our employees not to talk to anyone about what we do and who we do it for,” said Celentano.

In a further effort to increase security, most caterers now seal their orders with tamper-proof tape before they leave the kitchen. “The last person to touch the contents is in our kitchen and the next person is a member of that aircraft’s crew,” said Guy Smith, president and corporate chef of Air Culinaire.

The Air Chef Challenge

Several years ago, Air Chef’s Liston and company president Paul Schweitzer launched the Air Chef Enterprise System, a sort of franchise designed to bring other kitchens under the Air Chef logo, with each offering an Air Chef menu of some 300 items nationwide.

That network of caterers has grown now to serve 20 markets at more than 80 airports. “We’ve invested more than $4 million into development of the system, and that is our significant advantage,” said Liston. “We believe we now represent between 7 and 10 percent of the catering market in the U.S.”

Most recently, Air Chef reached an agreement with eLSG.SkyChefs that will allow business aircraft owners and operators to purchase cabin and locker supplies online through LSG SkyChefs (www.elsgskychefs.com). Users are required only to sign on as a member. Also last year, flight services specialist Universal Weather & Aviation selected Air Chef as a preferred business aviation caterer for its clients at four U.S. locations–Dallas and Austin, Texas; Washington, D.C.; and south Florida.

Air Chef has created a customer operations desk at its Columbus, Ohio headquarters. Combined with its new Web-based technology, this will allow Air Chef to provide frequent order updates to clients, by either fax or e-mail. “Eventually,” said Liston, “the customer will be able to go to our Web site, type in the order number and immediately determine the status of the order.”

Air Chef has not been without its detractors, some of whom claim it is a “dumbing down” of catering, motivated by “high-volume business from fractional-ownership programs that are driving much of business aviation these days.”

Liston disagreed: “Paul and I founded Air Chef because of the inconsistency of catering around the country. We take tremendous pride in having taken the knowledge of catering from the perspective of the passenger, and worked back through the kitchen to placement of the order to build the Air Chef network. And there are different groups that have individual needs– Part 91 operators, fractionals, sports teams. We’re filling those needs. As for fractional business, it actually accounts for less than half of our total revenues.

“Air Chef,” he said, “is the product of a search by business aircraft caterers for a way to differentiate themselves from everyone else. To support the system, we have seven executive chefs on staff, we have proprietary software for orders and quality control. And I’m sure we’re the only company with an individual whose only job is standards and quality assurance.”

Now Rudy’s Inflight Catering is in the final stages of launching its own nationwide catering system, this in partnership with “a major fractional operator.” The program, said Celentano, will coordinate the fractional operator’s catering needs across the country through a 24/7 Rudy’s office at the fractional’s headquarters, using a network of associated caterers. “It’s going to be an evolutionary process over the next 14 months that will address the top 40 U.S. business aviation markets at some 200 airports,” he said.

“This is not a response to Air Chef, but a customer-driven initiative,” said Celentano. “We are not administrators. We are a catering kitchen, and we know how to make it good.”

Rudy’s has also undergone on-site expansion in the past year. “We’ve doubled the size of our customer-service department, created another 3,000 square feet of commissary with about 600 items on stock, hired new chefs and created new menus,” according to Celentano.

Caterers Claim Business Is Good

While much of the rest of the business aviation industry has cut back in response to the economic recession of the past couple of years, the catering industry appears to have not only survived but also thrived. Rudy’s is just one example.

“The past two years haven’t been a time of significant growth,” Air Gourmet’s Saven told AIN. “But it has been steady growth.” Air Gourmet is now considering expansion into the Arizona market, “the Scottsdale/Phoenix area,” he said. Saven expects the new kitchen to be “up and running in the next few months.”

According to Guy Smith at Air Culinaire, “Growth in our Florida location has exploded.” The kitchen at Fort Lauderdale Jet Center opened April 1 last year following the purchase of Aviators, a full-service restaurant that also did aviation catering. “We’ve reached an agreement with NetJets and we used the slower summer season to upgrade the kitchen and install walk-in refrigeration. And we’re pulling people from our other operations to support that market during peak travel periods, such as Thanksgiving, New Year’s and Easter.”

Smith said the company is also moving into new corporate headquarters that will combine all the administrative operations with the existing kitchen and a demonstration kitchen. Smith also has plans to begin offering business aviation catering training to flight departments. The move is projected to be completed by May 1. “We expect to open a new kitchen by the end of this year, and we’ve been approached about opening a facility outside the U.S.”

GoGo Jet, which opened last May in Charlotte, N.C., is also expanding and plans to add a full kitchen to serve the Raleigh-Durham market. The company now serves 16 airports, and, according to president Brenda Navori, “We’re serving 90 percent of the fractional business coming through our market, including CitationShares, Flexjet, Flight Options and NetJets.”

Eric Pevar is a partner in Mireille’s Inflight Caterers out of Lakewood, Calif. His operation covers much of Southern California, from San Jose just south of San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin, and he notes that the West Coast is the only remaining major market in which competitor Air Chef has not gained a foothold. Last October, Mireille’s opened a new 2,500-sq-ft kitchen about 10 minutes from San Jose International Airport. He also notes that with three FBOs now
in operation at Oakland International, “we might consider expanding to include them.”

Paula Kraft, president of Tastefully Yours Catering, is pushing ahead to reopen the company’s second kitchen at Dekalb-Peachtree Airport in Atlanta. Kraft said she voluntarily shut down the DeKalb-Peachtree location in December when the dust and debris of remodeling became a threat to the safety of the food-handling process. The kitchen will reopen this month, three times larger, and features an “open” hot and cold kitchen and blast chillers to cool prepared foods quickly. When ready for business, Kraft expects to close the kitchen in Marietta and move the headquarters from there to the remodeled facility.

One of the few clouds over the catering industry in the past year appears to have cast a shadow over Castle Kitchens, one of Europe’s premier business aviation caterers.

The London-based caterer announced in late January that it would no longer offer 24-hour service. The new daily operating hours are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and the amended administrative office hours are 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. A spokesman said the decision was prompted by a “severe downturn” in market demand since 9/11 and “pressure from handling agents offering the services of unlicensed caterers, who abide by no safety and security laws.”

Castle’s Cooper also noted that orders placed with the caterer must now be received 24 hours before delivery “to enable us to offer the same high standard of cuisine.” He added, “Apart from these differences… nothing will change and we will still operate in the same manner under our existing UK airport licenses.”

Cooper said the amount of business aviation traffic into the UK is off “by maybe 25 percent, and while we’re holding our market share, that share is a lot smaller than it was.”

Prices Up, But So Are Costs

Caterers agree that menu prices are up, but so are their costs. “Food costs have gone up tremendously, and the so-called mad cow disease scare has driven beef prices to an all-time high,” said Rudy’s Celentano. “Everything is more expensive–insurance, health care, packaging, all the products…everything.”

Navori at GoGo Jet said her firm has seen a gradual, slow growth in costs, with the exception of the expected spikes in prices for seasonal products.

According to Paul Rossi at Rita’s, the standard menu pricing has gone up about 5 percent in the past year, “although if you have an agreement with the fractional operators, you’re pretty much locked in for the period of that agreement.” Rossi noted that the cost of produce is minimal compared with the cost of insurance, liability and workman’s compensation premiums, “which has risen about 25 percent over the past year.”

Additionally, a major cost increase is in the price of fuel, not an inconsiderable expense for companies with small fleets of delivery vehicles. “I’m paying more than two dollars a gallon for gas now, and our workman’s comp costs are the highest in the country,” said Pevar of Mireille’s.

In terms of pricing and costs, Air Chef’s Liston went into some detail and pointed out that costs fall into four major categories: raw materials (food), which has to be of the highest quality; packaging, which has to be business-aviation specific; the logistics of getting it from the kitchen to the customer; and labor, which includes salaries, insurance and medical benefits and workman’s compensation.

“And the one thing that customers sometimes don’t understand is that 35 percent of our orders are in the ASAP [as soon as possible] category, which we define as less than four hours’ notice,” explained Liston. “In that four hours we have to get the ingredients together, prepare the meal, package it and deliver it to the customer, and that easily eats up most of four hours. And sometimes you’re doing that at 3 a.m. and you had to pull people into work to crank up the kitchen. It is incredibly labor-intensive, and that’s going to be reflected in the pricing.”

Liston said within the Air Chef network, “We saw a cost increase–in terms of fixed and variable expenses together–of about 10 percent.” Liston said after implementing new cost-saving programs, the result was an aggregate menu price increase of about 5 percent.

FBO Handling Charges Criticized

FBOs continue the practice of adding a handling charge for catering orders, and it continues to raise the ire of operators.

In some cases, FBOs have made deals with caterers for a flat fee that is passed along by the caterer to the operator. In other cases, FBOs charge a handling fee based on the cost of the catering order and bill it directly to the operator. Some FBOs will charge a handling fee directly to the caterer, which then adds it into the final bill presented to the operator, while other FBOs charge a handling fee only if the order is placed through the FBO. At least one FBO has an agreement with a single caterer and refuses to allow any other caterer on the premises.

“I work for a charter operator,” said Naus, “and I’ve begun telling FBOs bluntly that if I think their handling fees are excessive or that they have an exclusive agreement with a single caterer, I will be perfectly willing to use someone else, pick up the order off premises and bring it out to the airplane myself.

“A 5- or 10-percent handling fee is OK,” said Naus. “Everybody has to make a little money, but 30 percent is too much.

“We are at a point where we are so dissatisfied with finding quality caterers that
we’re considering opening our own kitchen,” she added.

Pfizer’s Lippincott agreed: “[FBOs are] so inconsistent that it’s frustrating. One Signature facility is charging a 25-percent handling fee for catering. It’s gotten to the point where it’s Pfizer policy now to place orders directly with the caterer, rather than go through an FBO.”

Antonio Gooding, president of Gooding Global Resources, a flight-attendant training service, believes there are too many caterers who have “absolutely no experience with catering to business aviation and have never even been on a corporate jet.
“Some of them try really hard; it’s a business and they want to be successful. Others, and its obvious which ones, are in it for the money.”

Rudy’s Celentano agreed: “There are caterers getting into the business because they look at the menu prices and all they think is ‘Oh, you’re getting seven dollars for a sandwich.’” They don’t realize how much goes into that sandwich; electronic tracking of delivery trucks, employee-background checks, insurance, labor and expensive ingredients. All they see is profit, and the sad part is that too many corporate customers are sampling them.”

Some have been successful, among them Chef’s Market serving Philadelphia-area airports. “It’s taken them some time to adjust to the special needs of business aviation,” said Pfizer’s Hall, “but we’ve been pretty happy with them.”

Satisfied Customers?

Are business aircraft operators and passengers in general satisfied with the catering? Based on an informal AIN survey, it depends on the caterer, and consistency is a major factor.

It’s obvious that many flight attendants have found their own sources of catering, some secret and some not so secret. Front Street Catering and Deli in Memphis, Tenn., is one of them. Suzanne and Larry Busby have been providing catering to business aviation for more than 20 years. They go so far as to supply barbecue from several of the more famous Memphis smokehouses and, as one flight attendant put it, “They’re a joy the deal with.”

A relatively new caterer in Kansas City has caught the attention of some for “great quality and beautiful presentation” as much as for its Plate Expectations name.
Nor Du Bois, near Dallas Love Field, is serving primarily operators based in the Dallas area and was described as “outstanding.” Under owner, founder and corporate flight attendant Kim Elliott Norwood, the company opened its doors just two years ago and has already doubled in size. “Most of our customers are local,” she explained, “so we’re pretty much meat ’n’ potatoes, but very elegantly served of course.”

Amina Halim started California Cuisine In-flight Catering five years ago and serves business aviation in the San Francisco Bay area. A lilting Egyptian accent greets callers and she delights in adding a personal touch to typical dishes. Rather than accompanied by the usual French or ranch dressing, the typical crudités are served with a garlic/mint yogurt dressing. “I started this with the idea that whatever we do, it should be a little different and a little better than anyone else,” she explained. And with that, Egyptian-born Halim returned to the preparation of an order of Indian cuisine for 12 passengers.

A place called Pumpernickels that specializes in German cuisine seems a little out of place in Titusville, Fla. Owners Henry and Curt Simonsen inherited the business from their parents, who were German immigrants. Pumpernickels is a restaurant and caterer. “Our business-aviation clients know what they want, and we know what they want,” said Henry. They get what they want, he said. But it’s too bad it doesn’t include some of the restaurant items: sauerbraten, wiener schnitzel or pan-seared steak Viennese, smothered in mushroom gravy, topped by a flower onion ring and accompanied by a stinging side of raw horseradish. Not dishes for the faint of heart, or those following the South Beach diet.

But despite all the issues associated with business aviation catering, the bottom line among aircraft operators is simple, said Gooding: “Good food, delivered on time, properly packaged, fair portions and at a reasonable cost.”