High fliers

16/10/2008 - 00:00
Amid the current problems in our airways, demands on in flight catering have never before been under so much pressure. Airline caterer Gate Gourmet highlights its strategy for feeding the world in style.

Three years ago Gate Gourmet was facing a barrage of bad press over strikes and the sackings the business had implemented in a bid to change the company's operating procedures and reduce costs. Today the business has dramatically changed. It's a slick, streamlined operation delivering service globally to more than 250 airline customers, which include the likes of British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Delta Airlines, South African Airways and Air France, and is coping with the unpredictable business of flying. At its home in London Heathrow airport, the hub of the enterprise is its meal assembly area where hot and cold food is carefully prepared and made ready for despatch. It caters for up to 220 long haul and 40 short haul flights a day. Another site caters for all British Airways long haul flights that number 80 a day. Each block houses 1,000 employees. Gate Gourmet also offers services to airline lounges and recently won the contract for the Emirates lounge. The company says it depends on how much airlines want to invest in lounges, but the fight for the premium passenger will continue so there is a need to give passengers more to fill their waiting time. Chief operating officer for UK and Ireland, Stephen Corr, says: "It's not about putting a meal on a flight. It's about offering a fresh meal every day. There are 21 experienced chefs working in this facility across all the different sectors. The executive head chef's job is to ensure everything designed happens. "This facility will make a meal every two seconds. Around 37 million meals a year are made at Heathrow. We will do 93,000 meals a day. But flights are unpredictable, so the rolling meal could come up to 100,000 a day. Logistics are paramount in getting this food cycle going." There are separate workstations for different airlines and within those are separate areas for first, business and economy classes where there is much attention paid to detail regarding the food tray. The company assembles every individual item from cutlery and plates to salt and pepper. Gate Gourmet covers many different airlines, with different equipment – from the crockery to the boxes and the trim on the carts, and these have to be loaded in numerous ways. Ovens are taken on the plane separately, with tickets identifying where they go – middle or ends. "We have to make sure the food is dispatched in time – 50 minutes before departure it has to be there, and we have to do all the non food stuff such as magazines, etc," says Corr. "Schedule time is schedule time and we have to meet it. If flights are held up we have to hold on to the food. If the flight is cancelled, we have to do the same. But the quality will only last one day." Menus change on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis. Airlines such as Cathay Pacific have four menu cycles a year, he says, while Emirates change every month. Cathay Pacific, which has just extended its contract with the caterer covering 31 flights a week from Heathrow, visits Gate Gourmet twice a year for menu presentations. Others come much more frequently. Menus are different for first and business class and the spend is very different between the two. There are some similarities in the food but you won't get foie gras or caviar in business class, only first. In business class, there are more sweet desserts available. "We have to go the extra mile with the customer to show the difference," says Corr. Economy shouldn't be forgotten and there have been many changes there too with food offerings tailored to passengers. Some people wouldn't stand for a muffin or a croissant – Asians particularly, but Brits prefer a sweet, says the company. Adjoining the production unit is the development kitchen, which is home to nine development chefs, who devise the menus. They come from a background of hotels and restaurants, with experience in a wide spectrum of cuisines from British and French to Chinese and Middle Eastern. Chefs experienced in ethnic

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