““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Profiles in Catering
When you dine aboard a business jet, you expect a meal that's as first-class as the flight. But delivering gourmet food isn't as easy at 41,000 feet as it is on Earth. Just how do in-flight catering companies overcome the many obstacles they face and serve up dishes that rival what leading restaurants have to offer?
The short answer is that they work very hard. Such companies often maintain stock rooms filled with all sorts of dry goods and liquor for charter and fractional operators, so that their passengers' favorite wine or salad dressing is always on hand. If a passenger makes a special request, even at the last minute before departure, many catering companies will send a messenger to the market to retrieve the item in time for the flight. (One manager told us she once had about two hours to order a custom-made Godiva chocolate golf ball for a client.)
To find out more about how these outfits create the sort of meals that airline passengers can only dream about, we spoke with senior management at three of the country's top in-flight caterers.
Rudy's Inflight Catering
A "Mom and Pop Business" with 160 Employees
Rudy's Inflight Catering is based near Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and has another kitchen and distribution facility near Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va. When Business Jet Traveler visited there, executive chef Jonnie Khaoung was preparing a tray of colorful sushi, adorned with a pair of swans that he'd carved out of large white radishes. Huge wall-to-wall refrigerators were filled with prepared and packaged meals and side dishes, including tubs of a rich fruit dip that some customers like so much that they order quarts of it to take home.
Meals are cooked to order and then quickly cooled, packaged and sealed in microwaveable containers, and refrigerated at a precise temperature for shipping. Some items that need to stay very cold are packed in dry ice. When a customer is ready to receive an order, drivers load the packages into refrigerated trucks and take them to the FBO or airplane, anytime of the day or night.
Due to security concerns, the kitchen staff operates on a short leash, with portable GPS units to keep tabs on drivers' whereabouts. Employees must submit to background checks and drug testing, and must scan their identification cards when entering or exiting the facility.
Joseph Celentano, who owns and operates Rudy's with his brother, John, said the pair realized early in their careers that the way a meal is presented to passengers is critical to their enjoyment of it. Working at their parents' restaurant in Hackensack, N.J., while attending college, Joseph and John came to know many of the
pilots and flight attendants who stopped by on their way to and from nearby Teterboro Airport.
"They would ask if they could take to-go food for their aircraft," Joseph recalled. "My father and mother had no interest in it, so the packaging wasn't right. It was so rudimentary. People were taking cardboard boxes and wrapping them in aluminum foil." Then, he said, his brother John spotted an opportunity to purchase damaged cargo crates filled with glass plates and china for pennies on the dollar. "It was really the thing that helped us get traction early on," he noted.
Rudy's Inflight Catering, which the brothers founded in 1970, has grown to employ more than 160 people at Teterboro; White Plains, N.Y. (serving Westchester County Airport); and Chantilly (serving Dulles International Airport and several general aviation airports throughout the Washington, D.C. area).
"There are a million purveyors of good food," Joseph said. "To be able to put good food on an aircraft-it's more than just the food. When we started this, we were two hungry young guys, and we know that there are others like us out there. We try to maintain ourselves as a boutique business. You should be able to call here and it should be done exactly as you like. No matter how technologically advanced we continue to get, there is nothing more valuable than personal relationships. We still consider ourselves a mom-and-pop business."
Deliver the Food, Hold the Bells and Whistles
Scott Liston and Paul Schweitzer are the co-founders of Columbus, Ohio-based Air Chef, an in-flight catering conglomerate with eight company-owned kitchens and agreements with more than 20 affiliate caterers. The company serves the continental U.S., plus London and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
"We saw the evolution of the [business aviation] field in the '90s, when ancillary services like catering couldn't keep up with demand," Liston said. "Paul and I had to manage those services at NetJets. We were consumers of all of these things. We spent most of our time working with industry groups, trying to develop standards for service. But the catering community really didn't respond to that opportunity. It didn't appear to us as if the supply side was going to fix this problem."
Liston and Schweitzer decided to fill that gap, and left the fractional business in 2000 to launch Air Chef, which Liston described as a "catering management solutions company." Air Chef's affiliates operate similar to restaurant franchises, with each location handling its own affairs but according to Air Chef's standards. Air Chef provides training to the affiliate's kitchen and delivery staff, and customers can place and track orders seamlessly either through Air Chef's main customer service hub in Columbus, Ohio, or through the affiliate. The company employs 160, not counting affiliates' staffers.
Air Chef at one time offered various incentive programs, including one it dubbed the Apex Rewards Program, to try to attract new clients and retain existing customers. But Liston said the programs were not worth the trouble and expense. "Our customers want their food on time, without bells and whistles," he said. "We found out we didn't need it."
Cooking Up Relationships First, Meal Second
In the greater Los Angeles area, celebrities regularly use general aviation, and keeping these customers happy requires time and patience, said Miriam Blasi, manager of Air Gourmet's L.A. facility. Blasi said she has been to enough catering industry trade shows to know that there is a lot of competition in the business, and that the companies that succeed are those that hire and retain the best people.
"The new companies are going to ooh and ahh everyone with a new menu, but if they don't have consistent employees who know what they are doing, they are not going to survive," she said.
Air Gourmet employs about 85 people and serves Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Blasi, who handles most of the hiring for the Los Angeles facility, said that many employees have been with the company for a decade or more and have developed solid relationships with their customers.
While experience in the restaurant industry does make a potential hire more attractive, Blasi said she looks primarily for people who are smart and can communicate well over the telephone, since that's how most orders are received and managed.
"The flight attendants end up being your friends," she said. "They don't need us; we need them. We have to keep that in mind. And it's not unreasonable. We're the providers, so let's provide good customer service.
"We don't care if it's a movie star or the guy who won the lottery or a cancer patient who gets a free ride," she added. "Every customer is very important."