The Many Steps Alaska Takes to Put Food on Your Flight

I had a great opportunity earlier this week to head on over to LAX to do a menu tasting with Alaska Airlines. They loaded me up with tasty food, but to me it was the process that made this so interesting. Airlines need to think about a lot of things when it comes to putting food on your flight, even in its now-reduced state.

Four Snack Boxes

I showed up at what looked like a fortress just before noon. Behind big gates with strict security, I entered the new LAX kitchen for LSG Sky Chefs. LSG handles the provisioning for Alaska in every one of its stations except for Newark and in the Hawaiian Islands. (There is no LSG kitchen at Newark.)

I was taken up into a big room where we would do our tasting. There were three faces I recognized – Bobbie Egan, Media Relations Manager was there as were Kirsten Robinett, Product Manager of Onboard Food & Beverage and Lisa Luchau, Director of Onboard Food & Beverage. Beyond them, there were several other people in the room working feverishly. Was this all done for me? Thankfully, no.

Our Table is Set

Alaska does this regularly to make sure everything is up to snuff. There are monthly menu tastings in Seattle, quarterly kitchen audits in the hubs, and annual audits in the other kitchens around the system. How Kirsten and Lisa don’t weigh 700 pounds is beyond me, because it seems that their job is to constantly eat, even if it is in very small portions.

The kitchen audits aren’t just about tasting food, however. They go to the airport and observe the operation. Is the food being delivered to the aircraft properly? Are the carts organized correctly? Are all the temperatures right? Is the recycling collected on board actually being recycled? It’s a very thorough process. As part of this, they do a menu tasting, and that’s where I got to participate.

Along the wall, every dish prepared by the LA kitchen was set up as it should be presented on the airplane. Each year, Alaska puts together a meal plan that will start in April and go for a year. Meals are rotated monthly but will likely pop up four times during the year thanks to regular rotation. I say “likely” because some get pulled out if the feedback is too negative. One was the portobello mushroom sandwich. Apparently, the team loved it and so did many passengers, but it didn’t go over well with everyone. It was on thin ice.

The executives have a weekly team lunch. It’s a regular meeting but it’s catered with food served on the airplane. (Most of the time, it’s with buy on board options from coach, but sometimes it’s the First Class food.) Once, they served the portobello mushroom and the word came down quickly – it had to be ditched.

The Cheesburger with Folded Cheese

Some foods, however, make it beyond the one year mark. The Angus cheeseburger, for example, has survived year in and year out as one of the most popular choices. Still, they’re careful to rotate it out so as not to have it wear out its welcome. It just keeps coming back.

While standing at the long table, I realized just what kind of attention to detail you need to have in this job. Kirsten was quick to notice that the butter was served in a little plastic case. That shouldn’t be that way in First Class, she noted. As we moved down the table, they pulled out a cheeseburger to show me just how much effort goes into these things. The cheese is folded in half because it melts better that way. It’s also placed upside down in the bun so it’s pulled out more easily by the traveler. It’s the little things . . . .

We looked at the four snack boxes that are shelf-stable. There’s a new kids box that they’ve been trying out – it’s been getting rave reviews. There’s also a vegan snack box, a deli box, and a vegetarian one. These look just like any other snack box but the products inside are different. There’s a heavy emphasis on using items from the Pacific Northwest. The discussion kept coming back to Beecher’s Cheese as an example – it’s a cheese that until recently was only made in Seattle.

We ended up sitting at a table and the tastings began. All food is served from a galley cart and on to Alaska’s usual plates. The silverware is the same too, because they need to make sure that airplane knives can cut adequately through the items. Everything has to be as close as possible to the actual situation on the plane.

We started off small, eating bits and pieces. But that was before I got to this great pork dish with meat falling off the bone. I, um, ate a lot of that one.

Delicious Pork Again

I ate a lot of everything after that, in fact, but I was most interested in seeing how the team reacted during the tasting. Kirsten was a little upset about a croissant being used by the LA kitchen. It was apparently bigger than what they use in most places so there wasn’t enough chicken to fill it.

Croissant and Curry

Everything is measured out carefully and there’s even a scale at the table if she thinks something is off. She also focused on the bread for the Italian baguette. It wasn’t quite what she wanted it to be.

The process of trying to get food to be somewhat standardized throughout an airline’s route network is daunting, because you can’t source everything the same in every city. But every cart on the airplane has a card that shows in color what each dish should look like when given to the traveler. That helps the flight attendants with standardization, but you can never guarantee perfection.

Flight Attendant Card

It sounds like nothing is quite as difficult as the Hawaiian Islands. In Lihue, most airlines just cater on the mainland for the roundtrip, so there weren’t any real catering options. Alaska found a local restaurant, bought a trailer, and has that company do the catering for the flights from Lihue.

In the end, I walked away with a real appreciation for how much effort goes into the food experience from the airline perspective. Now that Alaska has been able to successfully create a buy on board program with fresh food, it has the ability to invest even more into the program.

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47 Comments on "The Many Steps Alaska Takes to Put Food on Your Flight"

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dave_dc
Guest

What was wrong with the mushroom?

Chris
Guest

Mushrooms are a fungus.

Emma
Guest
I had a Portabello sandwich once. The first bite was also the last. Truly disgusting. New Year’s evening I ate salad at a hotel. Had to take special precautions not to let the whole tomato squirt over any of us. Have you ever tried to pierce a tough-skinned, bred for shipping but not eating, small salad tomato with a metal fork, as I did? Much less would I try it with a plastic fork! I bet it’s finger food, eaten whole, by most passengers. If the fellow in the photo is eating pork, I dunno, looks more like a chicken… Read more »
Derek Pugh
Member

Very cool opportunity! Do you think every (legacy) carrier in the US provides this much attention to detail with their food offerings? I understand an airline like Alaska doing this, but for some reason I can’t see some of the others caring too much.

Don
Guest

Looks awesome. I have yet to try them, but hear nothing but great things about them.

FRANK
Guest

Curious. Do they still pass out “prayer cards” with their meals?

david
Member

They do. I have always found it a little — well different.

David

Dave
Guest

Very cool experience…made even better with enjoyable food! I can imagine what the Southwest tasting session looks like. Everyone sitting around with the tiny bags of peanuts, cheeze-its, and those awesome cinnamon bun cookies.

Emma
Guest

Bad news for people on a blood chemistry diet. All those are on the avoid list for those with Type O blood, which is most of us. No wonder so many people have asthma and tummy trouble.

CP
Guest

Cool experience! I always appreciate such attention-to-detail.

Cranky, a question: I noticed the ginger ale in your picture. Did they have that out just for you, knowing that’s always your on-board drink of choice?

Airline Examiner
Guest

I believe United still caters F locally at LIH. I’ve seen lift trucks going back and forth to the Marriott, which is a few miles down the road.

Dayton
Guest

Actually, US Aviation caters as well as cleans for Alaska at LIH. United does pretty much everything else.

longtimeobserver
Member

Can haz chee-burger?

Nice article re: Alaska’s “walking the talk” (eating the menu).

LSG and for that matter most flight kitchens are all pretty much the same — by far the greatest variation is what the airline is willing to spend on meal components.

Sanjeev M
Guest

Lolz. I am surprised though that LSG doesn’t have an EWR presence, although Gate Gourmet is huge in these parts (Their IAD facility is massive!). LSG is an amazingly huge business (can’t believe AA sold it to LH).

I was on a United flight yesterday, and the BOB looked well researched and well done, even though I had bought food in the airport itself. Airlines should allow pre-ordering of meals online, and that’s when sales will soar.

Nick Barnard
Member

I’ve kicked around the idea of allowing preordering of meals online, but it has the potential to become an operational nightmare, especially if you throw in Irrops and passengers switching flights..

Sanjeev M
Guest

Yeah I guess, but meals are so standardized its just a matter of quantity, not option anyway. I know Air Asia, Indigo and SpiceJet do allow preordered meals and its a huge part of their onboard business. Maybe for legacies you’re right its too complicated.

Rohit Rao
Guest

EWR is almost completely CO and its partners, and CO owns Chelsea Food Services. I doubt any other catering company could get enough business to make it worth opening a kitchen.

A
Guest

Super cool. I haven’t flown Alaska in years but I don’t recall anything for food in the back of the bus. Whas this all food offerings for customers in F? I have noticed airlines paying more attention to food offerings in coach lately, however they still are cold sandwiches and snack type meals. Do you think we’ll ever see warm food options in the narrow seats again, or all the ovens out of planes for good? True shame IMO. I’d pay for a return to the glory days of flight.

Andrew
Guest

Unless I’m mistaken, Alaska does offer hot buy-on-board food in coach. I flew DCA-LAX a couple times a few months ago and remember buying a breakfast meal with hot sausage and eggs.

ancdude
Guest
Alaska’s main cabin selections usually include a hot meal at bkfst and dinner. Whenever the Angus cheeseburger is on the menu, I buy it and sometimes have deliberately not purchased a meal before the flight so I’ll have room for it; and been disappointed a few times when it wasn’t available. BTW – the cheese and fruit platter is outrageously tasty and is always available. Their breakfast skillets are very good and most of their hot dinners are good also. They don’t come up to the Alaska food of the 70’s, but pretty dang tasty. First class meals are, well,… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member

The hamburger didn’t look appealing to me, maybe in person it does.

I would never have eaten the pork since I’m not a pick food up in your hands and chew on a bone like a caveman or a dog.

longtimeobserver
Member

(Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

biscuitfarmer
Guest
On a food related note, Delta could do a better job marketing it’s food offerings and preparing flight attendants to “up-sell” the customer on food offerings. On a recent flight of mine from Honduras, I was curious to try out a sandwich, but first asked the flight attendant if I could fill up my water-bottle. She shoved then shoved the water-bottle she was holding in my face, and then shouted “I have to get another bottle”. She then came back and said “Give me that” to the empty water bottle in my hand. Needless to say, I certainly didn’t want… Read more »
Emma
Guest

Some days are bad days for folks. No telling what personal/family/company issue, aside from her job duties, was on her mind. We all have less than gracious moments, and it’s better we smile and ignore them…..IMO. She might have appreciated forbearance and it could have made both of you feel better.
But your point is well taken, marketing rules in a world where money is the main object of our affection.

John Dubpernell
Member

Hey Cranky; My last real job was a fueler @ SFO it’s an intresting one at times have you ever considered doing a piece on that part of the ops?
Oh by the way congast to you and your wife on your future arrival …
All the best and the new one in your lives.::))
John Dubpernell

Consumer Mike
Guest

Brett, Very good report. It was interestiong, detailed and educational. After flying “Other” unnamed airlines I believe the care and importance of at least tolerable food in the air is not universally followed or given any priority. Too bad.

Lynda
Guest
Great article! I did food kitchen reviews with United in about 1996 when I was having too many problems getting sick from my GFML (back when meals were on planes). I was an Elite/Super Elite traveller with Air Canada but mainly flew United. The kitchens were subbing non gluten free food in the meal on a regular basis and did not understand the impact of doing such a thing on a travellers health. Enough landings recorded with me in the washroom and United did something about it – which they did very well in re-training their kichens and putting a… Read more »
John Dubpernell
Member

Brett I posted a something earlier and I don’t see it posted?
Was it off topic ?
Just wondering
Thanks
John Dubpernell

Stanley
Guest

Who caters Alaska Airlines flights that depart from the Hawaiian Islands?

Swiss Wanderer
Guest

I’m reading this and my mouth starts watering. And then I remember the horrid meal I had on a Lufthansa flight some time ago, and I’m wondering if how much planning goes into their lousy, dry sandwiches and orange juice that tastes like it had already been digested.

David
Guest

Nice Jewish boy tucking into a pork sandwich ? Oi vey ! What would his mother say ? :-)

judy nagy
Guest

I am most interested to read that the usual airline catering company is not in Hawaii … we flew HNL-LAX yesterday and the breakfast in first class on United was practically inedible … I’ve only flown UA a few times during this merger with CO but surely the food up front isn’t always that bad? It’s difficult to screw up breakfast … and when one has a 7am flight, breakfast is QUITE something to look forward to!

dansocal
Member

AA’s breakfasts in F is definitely better than UA. AA has bagels and biscuits that are fresh. Their Egg’s and meat are better too. UA needs to toss the whole breakfast menu and start over.

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[…] colleague of mine, Brett Snyder, The Cranky Flier, had an opportunity to taste test the Alaska Airlines inflight menu last week in LA. He recounts his culinary adventures that lead to what you end up eating during a […]

Jacqueline
Guest

Hello CF,
I came across this old post of yours and read with interest. I wonder if you will see my post. Chancing you will… I’m interested to know how you connected with Alaska airlines to sample their in flight food. Do you have a contact? I’m in marketing. Thank you CF.

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