Would you willfully submit yourself to taste-test a bunch of airline food? Probably not, but I did this past week thanks to the people at Amazing Food Creations. And you know what? It was good. Beyond that, learning more about the insanity involved in getting food on an airplane was completely fascinating.
A friend of mine works at Amazing Food Creations (AFC) outside Chicago, so when I mentioned I’d be in town, we decided to set up a visit. AFC provides food to a couple of the largest airlines in the world. They put together everything from coach to first class, and they do domestic and international. They don’t do buy-on-board food just yet, but they’d like to get in the game.
So how come you’ve never heard of AFC even though you’ve likely had their food? It’s because there are an unbelievable number of middlemen involved in the process, so you’re pretty far removed from these guys.
I had the chance to sit with co-founder Dari Carré (pictured) to learn exactly how the process works. It’s nuts.
Complicated enough for you? Let me explain those numbers and hope I took accurate notes. I’ll use AFC as an example.
- First, the airlines figure out what they need and put it out in a spec sheet that also shows the pricepoint per meal. That info is distributed.
Then AFC and other food manufacturers prepare a presentation for them with prototype meals that are made in their test kitchens (at right). Sometimes, manufacturers deal with brokers to get their food onboard while other times, they just deal directly.
Every airline has different requirements. AFC wouldn’t use any current names, but they said that Northwest wanted traditional, American meals with a bland flavor palette to appeal to its customers. Other airlines want something a little spicier and more exotic.
Let’s say the airline likes what AFC has to offer. They’ll probably go back and forth for awhile until they get exactly what they want. Finally, a contract will be awarded. It’s usually 12 to 24 months in length.
- Once AFC wins the bid, they have to figure out how to turn the prototype meal into a full production meal. That can require small or large tweaks to make sure the product is consistently good when it’s mass-produced.
- AFC does all their manufacturing in their suburban Chicago facility. From there, a distributor comes to pick up the grub and distribute it. AFC provides food to airlines throughout the US and Canada, so multiple distributors will end up being used.
- The distributor will take the food to the caterer in each airport location. These caterers are the ones you may know – GateGourmet, LSG Sky Chefs, etc. AFC only makes entrees, so these guys take them and add the salad, dinner roll, trays, condiments, etc. They then put it on the plane.
- Lastly, finally, the flight attendant brings the meal to you and you shove it in your mouth.
Insane, right? I couldn’t believe it. It seems like there’s a lot of opportunity for the caterers to start taking over more of these roles so that you only need the airline, the caterer, and the food manufacturer.
It can get even more difficult than this. Airlines will sometimes contract with celebrity chefs to do meals. You might remember, for example, when Charlie Trotter partnered with United for meals. Well, when this happens, the company and the chef spend a great deal of time putting together meals that are true to the chef but also will hold up well on the plane. For example, you want to cut vegetables a certain way so that they prepare correctly onboard.
After all this, we headed to the test kitchen for a little bit of taste-testing. The chef and co-founder, Dari’s husband Eric Carré, creates food with several other chefs. These guys absolutely love doing this. It’s really funny to see someone put so much into airplane food, but it’s also pretty refreshing to know that there are people who are trying.
They brought out a spread of food for me to try ranging from the surprisingly delicious vegan 7-grain pilaf with fruit compote and sweet bulger wheat (left) to the just awesome mandarin orange chicken (right) which is served in First Class.
It was really interesting to see how the vegetables reacted to cooking. The meals are supposed to be heated in a convection oven on a plane, but they used a microwave because of our time constraints. The broccoli was soggy, and Chef Eric (as everyone called him) explained that the way they prepared it meant it was overcooked in a microwave but it would be in good shape on the airplane.
While AFC is doing traditional meals for now, they’re also looking at the buy-on-board world. They have a frozen meal that actually steam cooks in a bag (with Dari at top and at right). I tried them and they were really good, especially the Cuban veggies. Maybe one day you’ll be able to get it onboard.
Thanks to everyone at Amazing Food Creations for spending the afternoon with me. If you’d like to try their steam-cooked meals, head to Whole Foods where they sell them under the French Meadow name.