Based in Anchorage, Alaska, Nicole Traer is LSG Sky Chefs’ Head of Operations Support. The company employed approximately 26,000 people before the pandemic. Over 9,000 people were hired in 2022 and globally and the total number stood at around 19,000 in December 2022. The staffing level in North America is similar to 2019, at around 13,000 employees.
What are the main challenges in expanding kitchen capacities at present?
Nicole Traer (NT): First staffing. To recover from the pandemic, we had to increase our staffing to match the rapid travel demand that was returning. We had to improve employee confidence by safeguarding our people. The world was just a different place and people were nervous about being in a populated work environment. We had to instil confidence to get people to come into work.
As a company, we needed to adapt to changing market conditions. We initially began talking about trying to get back to where we were pre-pandemic but it is a different place today; that’s what we’ve experienced in the Americas. New markets are popping up, the economy has changed; things are different. Historically where we had slower markets, we started experiencing significant demand because remote work and availability for leisure travel have made people more mobile than they were. People are no longer exclusively required to live in large cities for work, so smaller cities started to see populations rise and travel demands that they didn’t have before
Additionally, we had to build in redundancies to ensure that we could continue to take care of the customer to protect against post-pandemic irregularities and uncertainties within the persistent supply chain disruptions.
How were challenges overcome?
NT: Keeping the employee workforce staffed became a significant challenge. For a few cents more, people would move to a different job. Becoming even more employee-centric became critical for us.
People wanted different things and we had to find ways to meet their new needs such as creative scheduling and other benefits and incentives. Furthermore, we re-vamped our onboarding and training processes to keep up with fast-paced recruitment.
Key to our success in overcoming challenges was collaborating and engaging with our customers more frequently to maintain open communications and a healthy relationship. This allowed us to be more responsive to the changing conditions the industry experienced.
How can you further ramp up capacity?
NT: One approach is downline provisioning. If we don’t have the capacity or staffing at a kitchen, we cater from another location.
Additionally, we have some great partners that support us, by bringing in products close to ready for cooking or plating that allows up to further ramp up. Finally, we have found ways
to add onto buildings with modular units, which can add capacity and can quickly move as demand shifts.
What do you think are the key lessons from the pandemic?
NT: First, we realised how agile the operation was. We now know we can jump off the ‘typical airline catering’ platform into other future business opportunities or different models to lower costs. As an example, we began making at-home meal kits, despite all the ‘new for us’ regulations behind these. We quickly developed the operational know-how required for the new businesses and created out-of-the-box solutions to solve the new problems presented to us by these new realities.
In addition, one of the more important lessons learned was that maintaining a sustainable workforce amidst rapid changes to keep our customers in operation was one of the key ingredients to success. As we look to the future, we are excited for new opportunities to bring automation into our operations to further support our evolving workforce.