Volume 4 | Issue 1 | Year 2008

A certain cell phone company postures its operation as being so supportive the entire network can hone in on one individual to ensure the quality of each call. Well, don’t look now: Every time you pick up a glass, don a headset, curl up into a pillow or taste a meal, a team of thousands at Gate Gourmet is hovering over you, making sure your airplane trip is enjoyable and relaxing.
Gate Gourmet is the world’s largest independent provider of airline catering and provisioning services, delivering daily on a global basis to more than 250 airline customers. With 200 million meals served every year and 93 flight kitchens, Gate Gourmet is like a country unto itself, a world wide web of strategic plotting, planning, preparation, assembly, and delivery so in the end you can have your meal … and eat it too.

During the last year, a team of chefs at Gate Gourmet has worked with American Airlines to redesign the company’s menu on flights to and from Hawaii. It followed a resurrection of sorts for the airline; hit hard, like everyone else in aviation, after the events of 9/11, American had simplified its offerings to cut expenses, including its unique Hawaiian menu. “As business improved we started reinvesting in our premium class cabins,” explains Tim McMahan, manager of menu planning and development at American Airlines. And there was a huge swell of support to bring “flair back to the service.”

The company reached out to native Hawaiian and celebrity Chef Sam Choy, award-winning restaurateur who has spent his career bringing regional Hawaiian dishes to a receptive public. And this is when Gate Gourmet, which had supported American Airlines in its menu redesigns many times before, was brought into the fold.

Go Hawaiian

“We brainstormed to see how we could take the inspiration of Sam Choy and the wonderful flavors he creates and make it work at 30,000 feet,” notes Gate Gourmet Corporate Executive Chef Bob Rosar. The company employs nine menu design chefs in North America alone, who must see to it that meals are consistent every single time a plane lifts off. In American’s Hawaii service for first class passengers, that amounts to 16 meals per flight going out on 20 flights per day.

The team began by preparing Choy’s Hawaiian recipes in Gate Gourmet’s Los Angeles kitchen facility as though making the dishes in a restaurant. Its mission was to make the dishes “airline friendly.”

Indeed, stresses McMahan, “cooking food for an airline is vastly different than in a restaurant. It needs to be able to hold up under a different environment.”

For example: seared salmon, as an in-flight meal, has to be prepared, cooled down and reheated, essentially double-handled before reaching the customer. Rosar’s chefs seared the salmon and then added Choy’s wasabi glaze and put it in a high intensity broiler, effectively cooking and sealing in the flavor in 30 seconds. Then it was chilled and reheated onboard the airplane. “All food is chilled to 45 degrees then reheated to over 145 degrees,” Rosar notes. The result? “It’s every bit as good as in the restaurant.”

Another challenge was to retain the crispness in sautéed vegetables. “There’s nothing better than crispy vegetables,” Rosar says. “We rewrote the chef’s green bean recipe to boil the vegetables in water for

15 seconds so that when they’re reheated at 30,000 feet they’re still crisp.”

Rosar notes that 15 years ago research found that between 15-20 percent of flavor profiles are lost in flight due to the pressurized cabins. “We found we needed to add flavors in other arenas,” he says. For Chef Choy’s teriyaki chicken, the team tried various methods of slow grilling so the chicken would retain the charcoal grill flavor. Rice wine vinegar was also added for tartness. “We then invited him back to taste his own meals,” Rosar says, adding that Chef Choy was pleased with the modifications. “We wanted to make sure his inspiration was reflected in the dishes.”

The new Hawaiian menu was rolled out Oct. 1 on all American Airlines’ flights bound for the Pacific islands. From nuts to dessert, it was a huge success, not just in the food preparation but in everything it took to get the plan up and running. “After everyone OK’d it we called all chefs in all cities affected by the new menu and did a two-day training seminar. We went over scenarios, such as what could happen if we do it wrong?”

Rosar explains that Gate Gourmet also had to consider the time it would take flight attendants to prepare and serve the meal, realizing that the attendants aren’t skilled chefs. “A flight attendant’s number one job is safety, and we know this (preparing meals) cannot be a big deviant from their normal routine. We know attendants aren’t chefs and we respect that,” he stresses. To ensure this, each galley is equipped with high-speed convection ovens that hold 18-24 meals. These meals, chilled to 45 degrees, are reheated to over 145 degrees in five to eight minutes. “Handling food safely is the number one priority,” Rosar says.

Outward bound

Ensuring health, welfare and consistency is a hefty responsibility at Gate Gourmet, which mobilizes daily to prepare and deliver an average of 189,000 meals a day in the U.S. alone. The company is equipped to respond to customers’ routine requests for quick turn around assistance to plan meals, develop plating and tray arrangements, manage duty free offerings and orchestrate final delivery of products and services. On short notice, Gate Gourmet can also meet the special requests of VIP charter flights, and on an ongoing basis, provides menus that range from Halal and kosher to low salt or vegetarian.

One of its most intense operations, explains Norbert van den Berg, vice president, operational excellence, is San Francisco, a multi-client environment, in which 12 of the company’s core clients operate. Making the scenario more intense is the very nature of the West Coast, involving not only local flights but also a large number of flights to Asia.

“Services change every month,” depending on the flight, van den Berg says, and to keep it all coordinated, the company has fine-tuned its operation into something resembling a roller coaster, a perpetually moving line of preparing, loading, unloading, washing, assembling, and reloading.

“When a flight arrives,” he explains, “we take high loaders, 22-foot trucks, that meet the aircraft and offload the material.” Up to 65 carts could be pulled from the flight (if it’s a big 747) plus loose material such as table wear, beverages and meal containers as well as leftover items: gift bags, pillows and headsets.

The trucks take it all back to Gate Gourmet’s 120,000-square-foot facility, where a staff of 650 gets to work. At the loading dock all equipment is put in a holding area; then each piece of beverage ware, flat ware, and china is placed into five industrial-sized dishwashers. “Everything is separated by flight and by client,” Van Den Berg explains. With international flights, all garbage needs to be incinerated to get rid of any bugs or germs that could be transported into the country. It takes two hours to completely clean and sanitize all the tableware before it is staged for outbound flights.

Then comes the reassembling and reloading procedures that encompass several areas, where everything is all packed up again according to what it is: glasses, tableware, headsets, blankets, pillows and other assorted accessories. In the food processing area, food is placed on meal trays and positioned in an outbound holding unit, what van den Berg describes as a “big refrigerator” with a temperature set at between 40-42 degrees.

“Aircraft have multiple galleys, for economy, business and first class. We check to make sure all three classes are assembled in carts – each cart has a specific location on the aircraft – they’re all numbered according to which galley they’re going to. A separate security company checks for material that shouldn’t be there or loaded on board. They seal everything and from that point on, nothing can be opened back up.”

In San Francisco, Gate Gourmet could be preparing for 15-20 large flights that go out at the same time, with 65 carts each, plus additional items in carriers totaling over 1,000 servicing units carrying a total of 1,000 to 1,500 units for a large 747. “We have deployed strategic initiatives, continuous improvement (lean manufacturing and Six Sigma program) to cut costs and to keep the operation efficient,” van den Berg says. “We determine what is value added with the client and then go back and organize processes in such a way so to align them with our client’s request. Quality checks are built in to the process.

“The key to our operation,” he adds, “is our delivery reliability; we have 99.7 percent delivery reliability – very few industries are up to that level. A lot of manufacturing companies compare themselves to best in class. If you compare what our business is about, on the West Coast with flights going to Asia, we carry 10 times as many items than go into a typical car. Every client, every destination has a different set up with products, and we can turn a flight around in six to eight hours, from Hong Kong going back out to London. That’s pretty substantial.”

Supplying demand

To keep this operation humming Gate Gourmet relies on a supply chain comprised of a few hundred companies, including manufacturers, distributors, cabin service providers, such as people who clean the plane or deliver items such as pillows, blankets, headsets or china in first class. “We also deal with contractors, caterers and end users,” which are the airlines themselves, explains Dominic Troilo, vice president of supply chain management.

In addition to menu planning, Gate Gourmet’s business also involves galley planning and in-flight service design. For example, with Delta Air Lines, which is in the midst of upgrading its business elite services on trans oceanic flights, Gate Gourmet is collaborating with the airline to refresh the menu as well as redesigning the glassware and china. “A design firm will redesign in-flight serviceware, such as plates, glassware and flatware and our chef will work directly with Delta’s on-board service group,” Troilo says. The airline’s vision, he explains, is to offer passengers a plate that has more of a restaurant feel. For the menu itself, Troilo’s operation seeks to cross-utilize ingredients between lunch and dinner. “We like to standardize the number of products delivered to the airline.”

As it launches the Delta redesign project, Gate Gourmet will draw together maybe 100 different food manufacturers from its supply chain. “If it’s a big menu refresh, it can take as long as three to nine months,” Troilo explains. “We bring the distributor

to the table, and discuss what we need to deliver in what quantity.” This entails food forecasting, drawn from airline passenger statistics. As an example: The Atlanta to London route, at 83 percent full, with a certain percentage flying in each class, would dictate how many cases of steak, vegetables, beverages, etc., need to be purchased.

While the Delta program is still in the design stage, there are many other programs getting the attention of Gate Gourmet. For Amtrak, the company has begun offering fresh sandwiches instead of frozen packaged sandwiches. “We worked with all manufacturers to make sure we had delivery on a daily basis. We start constructing the sandwiches in the early morning hours for trains in Boston, New York and D.C.,” Troilo says.

In all, Troilo estimates Gate Gourmet hits 400 different delivery points weekly among the major airports as well as customer airport lounges. “We move several thousand items a week,” including everything from sandwiches to beverage glasses to “hundreds of thousands of headsets.” Such a massive operation needs a finely tuned supply chain. “We cultivate our supply base and work with manufacturers and distributors very closely. We have infrastructure set up so we can take any specific item and distribute it throughout the U.S. on a moment’s notice.”

So, on your flight to Hawaii, now understanding the immensity of what brought you your teriyaki chicken, know that you’re not alone. Many members of Gate Gourmet’s team has had a part in your comfort – and in the world of airline travel, that means a lot.