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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.