Catering: Special Report
By Kirby J. Harrison
September 1, 2007
As tastes change, caterers offer more adventurous menus
things can make or break a flight as thoroughly as catering. Caterers
know it, and passengers know it. So do the schedulers and dispatchers
who order it and the flight attendants who serve it. That considered,
said Brad Thomas, catering director and executive chef at Lindy’s in
San Diego, “the goal of everyone is to make the passengers happy.”
the past decade, a worldwide cadre of caterers devoted exclusively or
primarily to serving business aviation has come into existence to
accomplish exactly that.
Ten years ago it was rare to see a business
aviation caterer exhibiting at the NBAA Schedulers & Dispatchers
Conference or making an appearance at the association’s annual Flight
Attendant Conference. Now a catering working group is heavily involved
in the organization and presentation of both events. At the Schedulers
& Dispatchers Conference in January, 14 exhibitors were caterers,
and at the Flight Attendants Conference in June, 16 major business
aviation caterers presented four extensive training sessions.
most industry estimates, there are approximately 150 caterers serving
business aviation in North America, where about 75 percent of the
world’s operators are based and where approximately 19,200 business
aircraft are in service. Roughly another 75 or so are scattered around
the remainder of the globe, providing catering to some 4,100 operators
flying nearly 7,000 aircraft.
Aware of the interdependent
relationship, caterers and their front-line customers–typically flight
attendants and schedulers and dispatchers–are working together more
closely than ever. Most caterers encourage flight attendants to visit
their kitchens. Not only is it good business, say caterers, but the
feedback helps them do their job more efficiently.
(including pilots) learn the complexities of taking orders, preparing
catered meals and handling food safely. Some patient caterers will also
provide instruction on reheating, replating and serving the meals they
“I tell flight attendants that they are the primary
catalysts for change in this industry,” said Paula Kraft of Tastefully
Yours Catering, Chamblee, Ga. “If they’re willing to settle for less,
then less is what they’re going to get.”
A number of caterers
have gone so far as to create culinary courses designed specifically
for flight attendants. Mike Linder, the owner of Silver Lining Inflight
Catering, Pompano Beach, Fla., hosts a monthly culinary training class
open to anyone in the business aviation industry. The one-day class
runs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and includes subjects such as food safety
and handling, placing orders, meal service, plating, presentation and
garnish. “We have an average of about eight people at every class,”
said Linder. “We also invite a different FBO each week to send people
here for a tour of the kitchen and lunch.”
The Cork in the Dom Perignon
attendants are already aware that passengers are far more concerned
with their ability to open the Dom Perignon without launching the cork
on a pinball trajectory through the cabin than with their safety
training and knowledge of safety procedures.
They assume the
flight attendant is well trained. They demand good service. Such
passengers are, according to some, “products of the Food Network” and
benefit from the culinary genius of celebrity chefs ranging from Giada
de Laurentis to Emeril Lagasse. What’s more, said Bombardier chief
flight attendant Debbie Franz, they’ve grown up “going out to fine
restaurants, attending cooking classes and going to wine tastings.
had clients ask the flight attendant to call their personal chef when
putting together the menu for a flight. I’ve even gone myself and met
with a client’s chef,” Franz said.
“For a lot of flight
attendants, the culinary arts were a hobby,” she explained. “Now it’s
becoming part of the job.” Franz attended The Gourmet Institute in New
York City and the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Cassacia, founder of The Corporate School of Etiquette, Long Beach,
Calif., agrees. Cassacia recently reintroduced her school with a new
curriculum and plans to add a two-day course in culinary arts that
includes in-flight meal preparation. “Passengers today are inclined to
look at the cost of catering for a flight and assume the offering has
to be at least as good as what they were served last night at Spago in
“I’m hearing about more and more flight attendants
learning the skills of a chef, but I’m also hearing about more and more
chefs becoming flight attendants,” she said.
A unique entry in the
field is Executive Chef Services, an online referral database of chefs
with skills beyond the ordinary. Several have experience with in-flight
meal preparation or other experience with business aviation, said
founder Alex Forsythe, an executive chef who is also a contract flight
It’s Going To Cost
As complaints about
costs continue, no one associated with the industry–customers or
caterers–expects the cost of catering to remain at current levels, and
it certainly isn’t going to go down.
“A lot of people look at
our pricing and think, ‘Wow, I’d better get on the bandwagon,’” said
Silver Lining’s Linder. “And there is a lot of revenue,” he added. “But
there are also a lot of costs.”
“Everything costs more,” said
Kraft of Tastefully Yours, “ingredients, rent, utilities, insurance,
labor and especially gas. Last year, we averaged about $2,000 a month
for gas for our delivery vehicles. Last month, that bill alone was
$4,800. My payroll costs alone are about $250 an hour.”
Celetano, co-owner with brother John of Rudy’s Inflight Catering near
Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, has observed a pricing increase of 6
to 8 percent from 2005 to 2006 and expects “the same or a little more
Faced with complaints about rising costs and
occasional cries of gouging, caterers point out that theirs is a
labor-intensive business in which business jet passengers are no less
demanding than diners at the finest restaurants. “We’re not a grocery
store and we’re not a deli,” said Kraft, “we’re more like room service
at a five-star hotel, except that we don’t get the dishes back.”
are also quick to point out that unlike a restaurant menu, a typical
catering menu must offer something for a wide variety of ethnic tastes
and demands, which means keeping a greater variety of stock on hand,
and often going shopping for items that aren’t on the menu. Shopping
for something not on the menu will typically double the cost, say
caterers, and with justification.
“I have most of the name-brand
sodas, and a few that aren’t, in stock and priced at about dollar a can
or bottle,” said one caterer. “But if I have to send out for a six-pack
of some designer juice or soda, not only is the juice going to cost
maybe double what an ordinary brand would cost, I have to add maybe $20
to cover my costs for the driver and gas.”
At the same time,
flight attendants say this is not always the case. One flight attendant
provided AIN copies of several recent catering invoices. One invoice
included $16.95 for a loaf of sourdough bread and $2.95 for a single
whole lemon. Another invoice listed 12 cans of common brand-name soda
at $54 and assorted petit fours and mini tarts at $144 for nine people.
Yet another invoice from a standardized affiliate catering menu listed
a fruit tray at $33.95 per person, $16.95 for a quarter-pound of cole
slaw, and $19.95 for a single cup of fruit dip.
general is a moving target. The cost of ingredients–fruits, vegetables,
seafood and meat–is affected by the weather. Some food items are
seasonal, and out of season they might have been flown in from around
the world. Other delicacies are rare, and still others are on an
endangered species list. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service has suspended the import of and foreign commerce in beluga
caviar and beluga meat in the U.S. since 2005, and even when it was
available, the price was in the $250-an-ounce range.
customer want Chilean sea bass? First of all, not all of it comes from
Chile, and it isn’t actually bass. If it is available, this flaky,
white-fleshed fish must come with documentation verifying that it was
caught legally. A single sashimi-grade Chilean sea bass (also known as
Patagonian toothfish) can command as much as $1,000. Gorton’s of
Gloucester’s online seafood shop lists four eight-ounce fillets for
$103.Finding Ways To Cut Costs
Many flight attendants
working full-time for flight departments and charter operators keep
catering costs in check by having on hand frequently demanded items,
such as sodas, lemons and limes, crackers and the like. Both full-time
and contract flight attendants will often look over a customer’s
catering request and go shopping en route to the airport.
use three different sources for a single trip,” said one flight
attendant–the supermarket for fresh fruit and vegetables, a restaurant
for some specialty, and finally, the caterer’s standard menu.
groaned about the current cost of catering, but he also noted, “It’s
the flight attendant’s responsibility to know the caterers and which
ones do a good job at a reasonable price.
“Be proactive,” he
advised. “Take an extra minute or two and explain carefully how you
want the order packaged, and tell them what size the packages should
be, and whether you want plastic or aluminum. Carry an assortment of
zip-top bags to repackage if necessary,” he said.
More and more
flight attendants take that responsibility seriously. At Bombardier,
the company’s flight attendants often order par-broiled meat or fish
and part-steamed vegetables from the caterer and finish cooking in the
aircraft galley. They make simple items such as omelets to order on the
Caterer packaging remains a concern of many flight
attendants, but it appears to be most often aimed at caterers less
familiar with the limited amount of storage space in a business
“There’s nothing that makes me crazier than a
lousy job of packaging,” said contract flight attendant Jewel Miller of
Phoenix. “When items aren’t completely wrapped, they leak, and
invariably at the worst possible time and on the wrong thing!”
caterers, said Bombardier flight attendant Franz, are better than
others. “We have one caterer who actually shrink-wraps every item. It’s
Flight attendants and anyone ordering from a caterer
would be well advised to remember the Latin caution caveat emptor (let
the buyer beware). Perhaps more accurately, the buyer should be aware.
Most caterers will work within the constraints of a budget. “I usually
ask if there’s a price point,” said Kristen Wasyliszyn, owner of
Atiki’s Flight Catering, which serves Minneapolis and Chicago. “If
there is, I’ll do everything I can to help them stay within budget and
still give them the quality they want.”
There are still
complaints about how FBOs regard catering. Many are still charging a
handling fee for catering orders placed through them, and it can run as
high as 30 percent, with no regard to the total cost of the order. “We
don’t like it,” said one caterer. “We know they’re doing it, but
there’s not a lot we can do about it. Our advice is to always ask the
person taking the order at the FBO if there is a handling charge, and
Stories of agreements between certain FBOs and
certain caterers are difficult to confirm. Some caterers deny any such
agreements. “We do not have such agreements with any FBO,” said Linder
at Silver Lining. “Our job is to provide good service and take care of
our clients, and that’s not part of it.”
“We had a driver who
wanted to drop off an order at an FBO for pickup by the customer, and
the FBO demanded a refrigeration fee,” recalled Patti Kupczyk of
Chantal’s Par Avion in Stuart, Fla. “The driver called me, and I spoke
with the FBO and said they would have to check with NetJets,” she said
with a chuckle. “They haven’t bothered us with it since, so I guess
they figured the fuel contract was worth more than the refrigeration
fee.”The Health-conscious Passenger
attendant Franz also pointed out that passengers are much more aware of
how they’re fueling their bodies “thanks to places like Whole Foods and
Wild Oats.” Flexjet contracts with Air Chef to provide most of the
catering from Air Chef’s affiliate catering kitchens in North America
and is in the process of reviewing the Flexjet menu.
noticed a tendency toward more simple tastes,” said a catering
executive for the fractional ownership operator. “It might be steak,
but not so heavy on the sauce, and the side items are grilled
vegetables and salads rather than corn and mashed potatoes.”
regions of the U.S. are at least somewhat immune to trends such as
organic foods produced without the use of artificial pesticides and
“I honestly don’t get a lot of demand for
organics,” aid Chantal’s Kupczyk. “What we get here in Florida is
primarily traditional menu items, and mostly seafoods.”
about 100 orders a day, and only about five percent of them include
anything organic,” said Brenda Paauwe-Navori, president and cofounder
of GoGo Jet, Charlotte, N.C. But her customers are typically from
regional sports teams and the Nascar race circuit. “We can do it. We
just don’t get a lot of call for it.”
Other caterers are seeing
a substantial growth in demand for organic foods. “I’ve seen a twenty-
to twenty-five-percent increase in demand for organic since I bought
the business in late 2005,” said Steve Kelley, owner of Airway
Executive Aircraft Catering in Houston.
Rudy’s Celentano described last year as “an explosive year for organics.”
is off the charts now,” said Eric Pevar of Mireilles Inflight Caterers
in San Francisco. “We’re a little spoiled out here,” he said, referring
to the fact that agriculture is California’s second largest industry
and organic farms represent a rapidly growing percentage of that
According to caterers, eating organic foods is only
one element of eating healthy. “We’re seeing a whole new demographic
among business aviation passengers,” said Celentano. “They’re younger.
They’re a generation that understands the importance of eating healthy.
They want wild salmon and free-range chicken. And they’ll ask for
specific brands, like Bell & Evans chicken.”
He added that
customers are becoming much more eclectic in their tastes. For example,
any old fish won’t do for a sandwich. It has to be tilapia. He also
paid homage to the large health food outlets such as Whole Foods and
Wild Oats for introducing new fruits to Americans, pointing out that
“tropical” fruit trays and specific exotic fruits are replacing the
standard fruit tray.
Middle Eastern dishes are perceived as
“healthy” and Mezzas, or Middle Eastern sampler platters, are showing
up on the menu of almost every large caterer. The variety is such that
virtually no two platters are exactly the same, though certain items
are typical–hummus (chick pea spread), baba ghanoush (roasted eggplant
spread), dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) and mahamara (roasted red
“Middle Eastern cuisine,” mused Celentano. “Who would have thought?”
only downside of eating healthier is the cost. Organic items are
typically 20 to 30 percent more at the wholesale point and sometimes
double the cost of nonorganic at the retail end. And the ingredients
for such menu specialties as Mezza are often difficult to come by and
must be purchased at an ethnic market, which is always more expensive.
passengers show interest in more exotic menu items, caterers are
becoming more adventurous in their menu selections. Beluga caviar is
being replaced by what true gourmets consider lesser roe–Ossetra and
Sevruga. And there is organic caviar from at least two sources– Riofrio
Caviar near Grenada, Spain, and Tsar Nicoulai in Wilton, Calif.
Premier Inflight Catering, San Diego, often has black cod and marlin on
the menu. “The black cod,” said catering director Brad Thomas, “is very
flaky and melts in your mouth. We do it with pad Thai noodles. It’s pan
seared and finished off in the airplane.”
Minneapolis-based Atiki’s takes pride in making everything from
scratch, including strawberry rhubarb muffins and wild rice and
cranberries. One of Atiki’s specialties is indigenous walleyed pike,
rolled in bread crumbs from dried pumpernickel with a hint of cayenne
and pan-fried. “And we have a great relationship with local farmers and
markets,” said Wasyliszyn, who also tends to the kitchen’s herb garden,
grown in the backyard in terracotta pots.
Breads are important.
At Tufo’s To Go, Columbus, Ohio, owner and chef Steve Tufo has become
accustomed to requests for a specific bread, even an ordinary bread. “I
have clients who’ll OK a ham-and-cheese sandwich, and then emphasize
that it has to be on Panera bread.”
Harry Purut, CEO and
co-owner of Gourmet InFlight Catering, Wood-Ridge, N.J., orders gourmet
breads daily–“olive bread, whole grain, cibata, Panera and a dozen
different varieties of rolls.”
Tastefully Yours has taken an
adventurous approach. Kraft said every Friday their kitchen is “sample
Friday.” She puts a stack of recipes she has gleaned from various
newspapers and magazines on her desk, calls in the chefs and tells
everyone, “Pick one and do it.” One of the results from the culinary
throw-down, she recalled with a laugh, was watermelon gazpacho [a cold
soup]. “Bizarre as it sounds, it was incredible!”
degree, most catering menus are regional in flavor. Caterers in the
Northeast typically have a menu heavy on seafood– in particular,
lobster. In the Southwest, variations on TexMex are common. Around the
Chesapeake Bay, soft shelled crabs and crab cakes are popular from
about May through the summer. New Orleans has shrimp étouffée, and in
Florida, seafood is also a major menu item (as is key lime pie).
is particularly sought after in the South. Some caterers do their own.
Others believe that really good barbecue can come only from someone
willing to devote the time necessary. According to those who truly love
good barbecue, the various cuts of beef and pork may spend from 12 to
18 hours in the cooking process.
GoGo Jet doesn’t even try to do barbecue. “We have a supplier who does it for us.
It’s just a small place in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, about
an hour’s drive from the kitchen,” said Paauwe-Navori. We pick it up in
ten-gallon pails.” It’s popular enough that GoGo Jet even does
pulled-pork canapés and brisket as appetizers. And don’t ask the name
of her supplier. It’s a secret.
Paauwe-Navori also talks of Southern comfort food–cheddar-cheese grits, Savannah shrimp in a Southern sauce.
Caterers these days chuckle when asked about the popularity of so-called “comfort food.”
whatever makes you comfortable,” said Lindy’s Thomas. In a world made
small by global travel and in a country such as America with its
incredibly diverse ethnic mix, comfort food can be anything from shrimp
gumbo to sushi.
“Everything is comfort food,” Thomas declared.
“It’s not always the same for everyone, but it is usually something you
ate as a kid, and the scent and tastes bring back good memories. And if
you’re traveling, it’s like getting a little gift from home.”Box Lunches
anyone on the airplane needs “comfort food,” it’s the guys up front.
Gone, and perhaps better forgotten, is the simple pilot’s box lunch
with a couple of ham-and-cheese sandwiches, a pickle, a bag of chips
and a soda. In its place are hot meals, gourmet wraps, shrimp cocktail
and Japanese bento boxes.
Air Gourmet has taken the “box” to a
whole new level. It offers the “Asian Moon,” which is a combination of
shrimp summer rolls, chicken satay, Thai glass noodle salad and peanut
dipping sauce. And there’s a box featuring papaya halves stuffed with
curry chicken salad.
A typical box lunch from Atiki’s reflects
the kitchen’s rather original approach and might include local artisan
cheeses, shrimp cocktail, a mixed berry cup, filet mignon sandwich and
prosciutto-wrapped melon. “Why not?” asked Wasyliszyn of Atiki’s.
To Go tries to keep the price for a box lunch to about $15. That price
includes a choice of eight deli sandwiches or a Thai chicken wrap,
along with chips, a salad and dessert.
But while the box lunch
has gotten a considerable upgrade, the palate of the typical pilot in
some ways remains unchanged. Asked what the most popular item on the
pilot menu was, one caterer choked back laughter and replied, “Peanut
butter and jelly–good ol’ PB&J.”
While passengers and pilots
alike are enjoying a new variety in cuisine, some customers are just
plain hard to please. Purut at Gourmet Inflight Catering recalled an
order from a customer who made it clear that her passenger did not
drink alcohol. She also insisted that she wanted chicken Marsala, a
dish distinguished by the use of Marsala wine.
In the past
decade, according to NBAA, the general aviation turbine fleet has
doubled, and the number of hours flown has grown from 2.3 million in
1994 to 4.8 million in 2005. It should be no surprise then that the
business aviation catering industry has benefited mightily.
with partner Michael DePaolis, bought Sensations In-flight Catering in
2005. “We almost doubled our business from 2005 to 2006, and I’m ready
for a huge year in 2007,” he said.
Wasyliszyn said Atiki’s has
doubled its business in the past two years, and she anticipates a 20-
to 30-percent increase this year over last year.
Inflight Catering, Purut reported a 30-percent increase in business
from 2005 to 2006 and expects similar growth this year.
Aerohawk Catering serves five airports in the St. Louis area and has seen sufficient demand to considering expanding.
to Rudy’s Celentano, part of the growth in the business aviation
industry has been the result of fractional ownership expansion and
membership card charter services. “The fractionals and the card
memberships have brought a lot of new people into the industry–people
with more sophisticated palates who know what they want.” he said.
of Chantal’s Par Avion normally sees a seasonal drop in business in
early summer, but this year, she said, “We were actually busy all
through June. We had about a thirty-percent increase in private jet
catering in 2006 over 2005, and 2007 looks like more of the same.”
Jet’s Paauwe-Navori reported a slightly lower increase in overall
volume, about 15 percent. “But,” she added, “I’m really pleased. Any
time you see double-digit growth, you’re happy.”
flying into San Diego International Airport (Lindbergh Field) may find
a wider choice in catering if plans by the local airport authority go
through and a second FBO is added. To date, Jimsair has been the only
FBO on the field and its lease with the airport has effectively made
Lindy’s Premier Inflight Cuisine–owned by Jimsair and located at the
FBO–the only choice in catering. Jimsair has historically refused to
allow other caterers access to aircraft at the FBO.
Gourmet in San Jose, Calif., owner Alex Pedroza is anticipating a
long-term, steady growth across the business aviation industry, “maybe
twenty or thirty percent over the next five years.” Meanwhile, he
added, “Our customers are happy. They’re paying their bills, and we’re
paying our bills, so I think we’re going to be here for a while.”
Etiquette: It’s A Lot More Than ‘Knife ’n’ Fork School’
For a generation growing up with a burger in one hand, a French fry in
the other and both elbows on the table, “etiquette” is not much more than a
in a dictionary. Most people, in fact, can more easily define what
etiquette isn’t than what it is by simply quoting their parents.
your elbows off the table; don’t slurp your soup from the bowl; don’t
lick the spoon and put it back in the potatoes; and don’t talk with
your mouth full.” It’s all good advice, and Emily Post would have
But at its heart, etiquette is much more than knowing
the difference between “class” and “crass.” It is a measure of the
individual and the manner in which people exhibit their respect for one
another by conforming to certain accepted norms of behavior.
those who want the Emily Post version: “Whenever two people come
together and their behavior affects one another, you have etiquette.”
But she also noted, “Etiquette is not some rigid code of manners, but
simply how people’s lives touch one another.”
No matter what the
setting, said Donna Cassacia, founder of The Corporate School of
Etiquette, following the rules of etiquette is good form. This is
particularly true in the business aviation industry, where clients are
demanding and a breach of decorum can be a deal-breaker.
47, began her career as a corporate flight attendant with Aramco in
Saudi Arabia. After that she went to school at Webster University’s
campus in Geneva for a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing.
Three years ago, she launched The Corporate School of Etiquette in Long
Beach, Calif., providing basic on-site service training for business
aviation flight attendants.
Last year, Cassacia began
reorganizing the curriculum and expanding the school to accommodate an
even broader client base. More recently, she moved
the school into
a larger facility near Daugherty Field in Long Beach and added as
classroom props a refurbished cabin from a wrecked Gulfstream and
a side-view, cut-away mockup of a Gulfstream IV.
The new curriculum, said Cassacia, is now up to speed with five classes:
Practical Flight Assignment (one day) takes the student on an actual
“timed flight assignment,” from receipt of a trip sheet to placing a
catering order, to preparing and plating a meal. It ends with the
actual serving of menu items to “passengers” on the flight.
Business Essentials Training (one day) covers the necessary steps for
flight attendants to prepare for working with premier companies in
corporate aviation and then guides them through the application and
• Service Essentials Training (two days)
provides essential service skills for new and transitioning flight
attendants and flight technicians, with an introduction to corporate
aviation, chef demonstration, mechanics of service, before and after
landing procedures, and international travel requirements and documents.
Service and Business Essentials Training (three days) covers skills
that include a résumé workshop, dressing for success, business
communication skills, employment resources, one-on-one interview
expertise and dispatch briefing.
• Advanced Course (four days)
is hands-on class that includes all aspects of cabin services, from
wine and food pairing and knife skills to international etiquette and
catering recovery techniques.
In the works are plans for a
division devoted to business executives. The course will include dining
etiquette, protocol, letter writing and even how to shake hands.
the future, the school will add a two-day class devoted to culinary
skills, from selecting ingredients and cooking, to recovering from a
mistake. In the past, she explained, a flight attendant was rarely–if
ever–expected to do more than serve what the caterer delivered. But
that’s changing. Airplanes are larger with better equipped galleys, and
with nonstop flights lasting up to 14 hours, more aircraft owners are
looking for flight attendants who are skilled in the culinary arts.
attendants quickly learn that while they must be current in terms of
FAA training requirements, and that medical emergency training is
important, more of them are fired for poor service or some breach of
Cassacia added floral design and scents to the
curriculum after hearing the story of a passenger who not only objected
to the flowers on board but went so far as to snatch them out of the
vase and throw them onto the runway.
Noting the increase in
global business, Cassacia said, “Etiquette, comportment, the ability to
make people feel comfortable has never been more important.”
has taken an equally important place in the hiring process. “When [the
interviewers] invite you to lunch after the interview, it’s not because
they want to feed you,” said Cassacia. “They want to see how you handle
yourself in a social situation.
“The idea,” she said, “is that
students will not only learn but embrace the principles of etiquette,
which will in turn give them the confidence to handle themselves well
in any social or professional situation.”