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.

45 Responses to The Many Steps Alaska Takes to Put Food on Your Flight

  1. dave_dc says:

    What was wrong with the mushroom?

    • CF says:

      I think portabello mushrooms are just a little polarizing. Some people love them while others don’t. If you’re going to have something onboard, it needs to appeal to a pretty wide audience.

    • Chris says:

      Mushrooms are a fungus.

      • Emma says:

        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 bone to me. If they have bones in any of the food, I’d question that. It’s wasteful of space and weight, unnecessary, and messy. Sticky, greasy, fingerfood. Petite pork shank? I wanna see porky on the hoof to believe the petite part.
        O/w, where do I apply for the testing job?

  2. AirlineDorkDerek says:

    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.

    • CF says:

      I would imagine that the legacies do pay this much attention, at least on the premium cabin side. In coach, definitely not since most don’t even bother with hot food.

  3. Don says:

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

  4. FRANK says:

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

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

      David

    • CF says:

      Yeah, I wrote about this a little back when I visited with them in September. The prayer cards are included on meals that are served on trays. So they never show up in coach anymore, but they’re often in First Class. It sounds like some people love it and some hate it. They watch it closely, and I imagine that they would stop doing it if a lot more people hated it than loved it.

  5. Dave says:

    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 says:

      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.

  6. CP says:

    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?

    • CF says:

      Talk about attention-to-detail! They asked me what I wanted to drink, and of course, since this was supposed to be inflight food, I went with my inflight beverage of choice. Everyone else just had water, but I figured I should make it as authentic as I could.

  7. 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.

  8. AirBoss says:

    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 says:

      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.

      • 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 says:

          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 says:

        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.

  9. A says:

    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 says:

      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.

    • CF says:

      Andrew is correct. They have a pretty good hot buy on board offering in coach. When I flew in September, the egg and sausage skillet smelled so good that I ended up buying one even though I originally had no intention of eating. The cheeseburger is buy-on-board, and the Italian baguette is as well. So Alaska definitely goes above and beyond what most airlines do in the back.

  10. ancdude says:

    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, first class; there’s hardly any sound more pleasing on a flight than silverware clinking on a china plate. Love the upgrades.

    In Alaska we sometimes fret that AS has such a monopoly and comprehensive schedule, and their pricing to the Seattle hub is never cheap. But if we have to have a monopoly airline, we could do a lot worse, as in any of the legacy carriers.

  11. 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.

    • AirBoss says:

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

    • CF says:

      Well, I’m proud to be a caveman/dog. You actually didn’t need to pick the bone up at all. The meat practically fell off the bone, so that picture was more for show than anything else. But it was delicious.

      That burger picture was before it was warmed, so it looks better. But ultimately, it’s still not that pretty when compared to some of these other dishes.

      • Emma says:

        Nothing on that baby but cheese? Well, cheese whiz!
        I don’t get the melting thing. Maybe I’m oblivious? If the cheese is made to be pulled off the sandwich, but it melts better when doubled, isn’t that a contradiction? Forgive my ignorance, but how does the cheese get melted after it’s delivered to the seat? Or does the help unwrap the sandwich and pull the cheese and re-wrap for serving?

        • The photo of the sandwich is pre-warming by the airplane’s oven. The sandwich is preassembled and wrapped on the ground in a cold state.

          If they just put a slice of cheese flat it’ll melt onto the wrapping paper, depriving people of cheese, and making a mess. By folding it, the cheese doesn’t melt (as much) onto the wrapping paper.

  12. 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 to deal with her anymore and didn’t order a sandwich. Good food is useless if flight attendants won’t sell it, or act as though they give a flip about their customers.

    I want to write Delta a letter about her rude behavior. I realize that asking to fill up my water bottle is a somewhat time consuming request, but was her behavior justified?

    • Emma says:

      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.

  13. 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

    • CF says:

      I’m happy to do a piece on any part of the operation. I think it’s all interesting since most people don’t see it.

      (And yes, your comment get caught by the spam filter. As I mentioned before, email me at cf@crankyflier.com to get the fastest response if you don’t see it go live.)

  14. 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.

  15. Lynda says:

    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 process in place so food would not be substituted. Then they invited me to the SEA and ORD flight kitchens for a tour and to test the various new GFML’s out. Do not fly full time now to get to work and hot meals like this are gone on United, however it was a great experience to see the kitchens and the dance they do each day with all the food, trays and carts!

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

  17. Stanley says:

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

    • CF says:

      It’s a restaurant in Lihue and a catering business in Kona. Both Kahului and Honolulu have on airport catering operations.

  18. 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.

  19. David says:

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

  20. judy nagy says:

    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!

    • Dan says:

      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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