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Corporate In-Flight Catering

To get a handle on the current state of in-flight catering trends in the corporate business jet sphere, World Aircraft Sales Magazine asked two of the most respected companies – one in the US and one in Europe - for their views. Interestingly their comments may even help business jet travelers to cut costs.

Mike Vines   |   15th October 2013
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Advice for Your Business Jet Flights

To get a handle on the current state of in-flight catering trends in the corporate business jet sphere, World Aircraft Sales Magazine asked two of the most respected companies – one in the US and one in Europe - for their views. Interestingly their comments may even help business jet travelers to cut costs.

Based in the US and known to the flight attendant fraternity as ‘the mother of corporate’ aviation catering, Paula Kraft the founder and CEO of Atlanta-based Tastefully Yours is one of the most respected and friendliest ladies you’ll ever meet in the industry. She is based at Peachtree Dekalb Airport (KPDK) and her company services 21 locations at 11 airports within a three-hour drive of Atlanta. Kraft also shares her experience with her competitors through NBAA or EBAA seminars, and through her other company - Aviation Catering Consultants - which was set up around six years ago to meet demand from FBOs and schedulers for advice.

Daniel Hulme is the MD of London, UK-based Alison Price On Air (APOA) and Vice Chairman of the new European Corporate Flight Attendants’ committee which held its first symposium at EBACE this year. APOA is a very high end in-flight corporate catering company which has clients based in, or traveling through London’s busiest Business Aviation hubs.

“Because we’re at the high end of the market I would say that 95% of our flights are for private owners - we don’t do a lot of charter,” Hulme explained. “Charter flights are more budget restricted. After the US, I would say our biggest market is Russia which is around 20% of our flights.

“We are very much interested in expanding out of the UK. There is a market around the world for the level of what we do. I’ve certainly had a lot of people ask me if we’re going to set up in their cities and countries.”

Specialist Orders

A tool which APOA fully embraces to satisfy the demands of its discerning worldwide clientele is its use of top London restaurants to fulfill specialist orders. “I believe that if we’re not expert in something then we need to find someone who is, and we already have arrangements with Indian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants. To satisfy the demands of our growing Russian clientele it is anticipated that a new partnership will be formed with one of London’s leading Russian eateries in the next month.”

APOA actually caters for very few Chinese flights as they tend to deal directly with chefs in London restaurants specializing in the food they want, but Hulme has been picking up a lot more Indian clients, and also has a number of Middle Eastern customers. “Sometimes we are asked to produce specialist Middle Eastern food in house as my chefs [ten of them] are very skilled. But if the brief is that all the passengers are Arabic and would prefer a full Arabic menu including Arabic coffee then we’ll go to a specialist restaurant for them. I certainly know that when I travel I like to have comfort food cooked the way I would have it at home.

“Sometimes the client will dictate where the food comes from, so for us it’s a matter of making sure that whichever [restaurant] supplier we use, it represents our company at the same quality level as my chefs would produce. I like to encourage all of my chefs and team to think differently; to think outside the box - and that motivation has really taken off.”

Food is delivered by a specialist restaurant to Alison Price On Air’s premises where it is blast chilled and repackaged into the company’s food transportation system, prior to being sent out to the aircraft. “It’s quite a bit of work on our part to make sure that food is safe. We are also legally responsible for that food and not the restaurant - so as you can imagine, it’s very important for us that we use reputable restaurants,” explained Hulme.

Eating Habits

Over in the US, Paula Kraft says that people are trying to embrace a healthier life-style. “Portion sizes have drastically changed, we’re now going to much smaller portions,” she observed.

The humble muffin, for example, now weighs in at around five ounces whereas 20 years ago it was between one and two ounces. “Now that we’ve seen the effects on our bodies everyone is going back to smaller portions. So when the flight attendants are ordering, I’m not only saving that company money but they’re also getting a smaller, lighter and healthier meal.”

With experience of high profile Arabic passengers heading back to the Middle East, Kraft says that an abundance of food choice becomes paramount. “It’s very often not a choice of two, three or four entrees - but six, seven or eight. I ask flight attendants why they’re ordering so much if there are just two or three passengers. The answer is simple: they like lots of choice and you don’t ever want to be faced with a Sheik or a member of a Royal Family and not have what they want on board.

“If you’re talking differences in eating habits, however, then the Europeans, Middle Easterners, Russians and Asian clientele are still eating to savor their food – it’s an event in their lives and it’s something they don’t rush. Americans eat because they have to eat - it’s not normally a ritual and not an event.

“This is probably apart from the American private aircraft owners, but even they when going on a business trip are there to work - so the food onboard often reflects this. I guess it’s because the U.S. is a fast-food culture - we’re in a hurry and we move fast,” Kraft added.

“It’s the same with table linen: we probably get three or four requests per year, with Americans preferring fiber which feels like linen or throw-away, whereas in Europe there is greater demand for real table linen. I see this as a big difference between the American market and other parts of the world.”

A Matter of Money

Kraft says much money can be saved by the client if they don’t over-order. “With a new client we will ask them what their company philosophy is on in-flight catering; do they want to run out of food, run close to running out, or do they want a lot of left-over food? Do they want to feed everyone something light or do they want them to waddle off the airplane and have to take a nap?

“Ultimately, I don’t want passengers to have a lot of leftovers and a bigger bill than was necessary. In the US a sandwich averages six to eight ounces of meat, whereas in Europe, the Middle East and Asia it’s the flavor of the bread and butter that is more important, plus a little bit of meat filling. One flight attendant said to me recently “I’ve been over to Europe and they don’t put any meat on their sandwiches”. I explained that if you’re ordering from any place outside the US you should ask how much is to be put on. If you don’t ask, you’re at fault.”

Kraft’s message is to ‘Plan ahead and save money’. She cites an example of a customer phoning in the early hours of the morning to order one bag of branded potato chips to be delivered to the aircraft. This $0.95 cent order resulted in a $40-$50 dollar invoice when the customer could probably have bought a similar brand from the FBO vending machine.

To help customers save money, Kraft’s Tastefully Yours offers the same meal at four different prices. The lowest priced meal is delivered in a zip-locked bag and is known as ‘bulk’ food. Next in the price range is ‘plated on plastic’, then ‘plated on glass’ and finally ‘plated on china’. From her experience customers are paying more than they need to if they want everything on china because “very often for a VIP flight they’ll slide the food off the plate and put it onto their own china, so they’ve paid for something that they could have bought for a lesser price.

“If they tell the caterer in advance they’re going to use their own china then we place a piece of wax paper under the presentation so that it slides right off our plate smoothly.”

In-flight catering prices vary at destinations across the U.S. says Kraft and its tier-rating is determined by the number of aircraft departures out of that city. Atlanta is regarded as a second-tier market. Among the first-tier markets are New York, Palm Beach, Miami and L.A. The most expensive of all are the resort-tier destinations. First-tier prices are roughly double that of second-tier, while resort-tier destinations can be four times higher than second-tier.

“Clients are looking to cut costs,” Hulme summarises. “When it comes to charter they watch their pennies, but when it’s private they tend not to. I’m a strong believer that once you get into a discount-type business model all you’re doing is competing with other companies on price.

“We say to clients – ‘Price, product and service: you can have two of them but you can’t have all three’. We do product and service. Price doesn’t come into it - we charge to maintain quality and make money.”

Point of Contact

Kraft and Hulme agree that the caterer’s key contact should be the flight attendant making the trip. “We take a lot of orders from emails,” admitted Hulme but I do kind of push my staff to pick up the phone.

“Sometimes when you’re dealing with the same client all the time email works well, but flight attendants love to feel special, they’re flying on an airplane worth millions dollars, and have discerning clients. They are our clients not the guy in the back of the airplane. As long as the flight attendant loves the food and it makes them look good with the client, they are happy and will keep coming back to us.

“We offer things like free cabin courses where flight attendants come into our kitchen and can play around with all our products and my chefs teach them some of the tricks of the trade.”

Kraft adds, “If it’s a flight attendant I’m dealing with it could take up to an hour on the phone because I want to know how they’re going to serve it, so that the meal will look its best.”

Hulme hardly ever speaks directly with the principal or his PA. “The PA speaks to the flight attendant and they are the aircraft’s PA. We have a very wealthy client who has used the same flight attendant for 15 years. He phones her directly and says, ‘We’re leaving tomorrow,’ and reels off the list of food required. The flight attendant has a tough enough job in not only ordering the food but cooking it and presenting it on board. If the caterer messes up, it’s the flight attendant who lands in trouble.”

Dietary Restrictions

Kraft says that a big change that has affected menus over the last five years is passenger dietary restrictions. “Food allergies are on the rise at an exponential rate, five years ago we might have had one food allergy meal a month now we have approximately three per day. So whether it’s true allergies, intolerances or special diet - it causes a big difference in our handling costs as all the kitchen equipment has to be sanitized and washed, cleaned and scrubbed again.”

Hulme agrees that special dietary food is on the increase, whether it be gluten free, lactose intolerant or nut allergies. “With passengers with nut allergies we are very, very careful and won’t supply anything with nuts in any dish on that flight, just in case.”

Thus, the business of in-flight catering is a multi-faceted issue. Dietary requirements as well as budgetary requirements should be weighed up. Additional consideration should be given to the length of the flight and the size of the aircraft, as not all journeys are long enough to facilitate a multi-course banquet, and not all galleys big enough to allow for adequate preparation or storage of food.

Once considered, all the input should be fed to the flight attendant in advance, allowing for them to make the proper planning direct with the in-flight catering company and ensure no sour taste is left with your employees or clients following the next business trip where catering is necessary.

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