Air Culinaire beefs up its catering biz

 - May 7, 2008, 11:10 AM

While much of the business aviation industry remains mired in a slumping economy, Air Culinaire has just expanded to a new location in Signature Flight Support at Memphis International Airport, bringing to 85 the total number of airports served by the Arlington, Va.-based caterer. One of three recent expansion projects, the kitchen opened for business on September 27–three days ahead of schedule and with tennis star Andre Agassi as the launch customer.

Founded three years ago by Guy Smith, Air Culinaire has grown to a presence at 110 FBOs in 11 states at those 85 airports.

Smith’s own qualifications are unique. One might not be surprised to find him to be a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and L’Academie de Cuisine, or to have 16 years of experience as an executive chef. But one might not expect to discover that 2.5 of those 16 years were spent managing restaurants for U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during and after Operation Desert Storm. “It was an incredible experience,” he recalled, “and not one I’d care to repeat.”

Today, Smith manages a much larger, though less distant, culinary empire. It includes more than 100 employees providing business aviation catering at locations in metropolitan Washington, Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver and Memphis, with aspirations for more growth in the near future.

Market Culinaire opened in mid-September, about four miles from Dulles International Airport in North- ern Virginia. The unique “on the run” deli for walk-in customers offers a variety of salads, pasta dishes and hot entrees, as well as retail groceries and snacks. Market Culinaire is colocated with the catering kitchen in a six-story office building four miles from the airport.

The market, said Smith, is doing “extremely well,” with growing numbers of short-notice and add-on orders. “We’ve been filling orders there in as little as 30 minutes,” he added.

The expansion at Denver also offers something out of the ordinary. Air Culinaire already operates a catering kitchen at Denver International. The new catering kitchen site that opened in September at Centennial Airport, on Denver’s southeast outskirts, includes a full-service restaurant featuring complete breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch menus, as well as a gourmet salad bar with daily soup specials and a bread station. The dining room is decorated in an aviation motif, and diners will have a view of the chefs at work in the catering kitchen. Prospective clients at the Centennial location, said Smith, are encouraged to visit the kitchen and sample various dishes in the preparation process. The restaurant/kitchen is located in the kitchen facilities formerly used by Signature at its FBO and now leased by Air Culinaire.

The arrangement is the fourth such association with the Signature FBO chain. The others are colocated in leased kitchens at Signature FBOs at Denver International, Dallas Love Field, and Memphis International. It’s a matter of convenience, both for the company and its clients, said Smith, who also added that Air Culinaire has since been approached by several other FBOs interested in a similar agreement.

The next expansion will be at the company’s Northern Virginia headquarters/kitchen. Smith said he expects to relocate in the near future to a larger facility with an HACCP-approved kitchen ensuring careful control measures at critical points in the food-preparation process. (HACCP, standing for “hazard analysis and critical control point,” is a USDA food safety program administered by state and local governments.)

With the growth in catering sites nationwide, Smith said the company has begun including menu inserts to feature regional cuisine creations, including Memphis Mudd Cakes, Texas Tumbleweed Steak Salad, Chesapeake Seafood Salad and a Colorado Aspen Highlands Salad, which makes liberal use of such items as pine nuts and arrowhead spinach.

To meet the higher demand for catering during special events, holidays and seasonal changes, Air Culinaire makes use of what it has dubbed the Traveling Chef Brigade. The team of four executive chefs also assists with cross training, consistency and quality assurance. The company has sent the entire team, or a select number from the team, to a variety of special events in the past year to augment the existing staff, among them a grand opening for Mayo Aviation’s new hangar in Denver and the nascar race in Dallas.

Also recent is a rebuilt Internet home and ordering site ( “The old e-commerce-based site was just a little scary,” said Smith, “so we went to a simpler, more user-friendly format, and we’re sharing with Flight Explorer so we can track our customers’ flights and ensure that their orders are delivered on time.”

Smith is particularly proud of the Supplier Recognition Award presented to Air Culinaire by NetJets at the fractional operator’s annual awards event in September. “It is recognition for past service,” said Smith, “but it’s also an incentive to do better.”

Doing better will likely mean more expansion, according to Smith, who is confident of Air Culinaire’s ability to “continue or exceed” the current level of growth. He added that the company expects to open “at least two more locations next year.”t