May 29, 2023

Cooking up a recovery

There are challenges a plenty but leading catering companies are revving up for recovery reports Julie Baxter

Leaders in the onboard catering sector report recovery is now underway with an acceleration towards smarter solutions and new ways of working.

Speaking at the first online webinar run by the Airline Catering Association (ACA), the heads of gategroup, LSG Group and dnata Catering & Retail all championed recovery and shared the view that the sector is at a point of transformation.

Robin Padgett, senior vp catering and chair ACA, said: “I don’t want to proclaim a false dawn but we feel we are on a strong and clear pathway out of the pandemic. Business is back to 50% of pre-Covid levels. The market is different in different regions but it feels like a recovery in every market – some from a very low base, others about half way back – but the trend is unambiguously up, so we are quietly confident we are going in the right direction.”

Erdmann Rauer, CEO LSG Group, said: “The pandemic showed us all how fragile our business was. As an industry we were all in the same boat, with a big responsibility for employees and stakeholders to find our way to the future. We had to stand together to learn from the crisis, within the ACA and within our own companies, and at LSG Group we saw it was fast decision-making and being flexible that was essential. The crisis was also an accelerator to smarter solutions. Technology has become key, transforming what we do and that will continue.” 

His team will partner with equipment specialists, Kaelis, at WTCE in Hamburg to showcase innovative tableware solutions with a sustainability focus, alongside a live cooking event on the Thursday with three-star Michelin chef Thomas Bühner from Germany, Fatmata Binta from Sierra Leone, and Monica Pope from the USA sharing their culinary visions for a sustainable, seasonable future. A wide range of tech innovation will also be demonstrated from the team and Retail inMotion, including augmented reality options and ways to accurately analyse tray leftovers to cut future waste.

Christoph Schmidt, CEO gategroup, said: “The market is growing, only four percent of the world’s population has taken a flight, and on longer flights we will always need to eat – so the fundamentals remain in place. It is a complicated business so not easy for new players to come in, and those who look see there is a big risk regarding the stability of the major clients after they lost 80-90% of their revenues in the pandemic. Happily they have survived, so the industry overall is not at risk but the pandemic has shown the vulnerabilities.” 

Building resilience

He is positive about the future. “We have had to do a lot to survive but we now are more resilient, we are diversifying away from airline to food service and this helps spread the business risk. This industry still has lots of potential. We have to be ready for the recovery whether it is with service or retail related F&B, we need to be close to our customers and close to their customers, and we need to understand just what they want.”

He predicted it would be three to five years before full recovery in terms of business volumes was complete and that there would be an acceleration towards more retail offerings, more hybrid models, more pre-order, pre-select and personalisation. As some airlines divest themselves of in-house caterers he expects larger catering players will be the ones investing in the technology needed.

In the U.S, Flying Food Group’s Nicolas Rondeau reports that most of his airline customers are in the process of reverting to their pre-covid menus. “The trend is towards authentic locally-produced products, with an emphasis on wellbeing and the eco-friendly. Though this is becoming a challenge to deploy due to the ongoing supply chain issues we are experiencing.

He sees strongest recovery in Europe, the Middle East and India and expects the flying levels for summer will be close to, if not above, 2019 levels. Asian recovery is slower, with mainland China still at spring 2020 levels, whilst Japan, Korea and Taiwan are forecasting growth for summer. He added: “Good news for us is that the domestic U.S market has come back strongly and our retail division is experiencing very strong activity, working towards the 2019 level.

Allison Budd is new COO at Air Fayre also sees business returning and facing new challenges. She said: “We are excited to see flight volumes rebound post-pandemic. Given the desire for cost-effective growth, caterers must leverage technology to automate historically manual processes to efficiently meet operational needs.

Challenges ahead

Tomu Odawara, director of onboard service at Cuisine Solutions sees challenges too. He said: “Throughout the food industry the challenge is to keep up with increasing post-pandemic demands. The challenges include labour and materials shortages, especially in airline menus that continuously change. The solution is to maintain and continuously improve menu quality while lowering labour costs. The strength in our products is that they are fully cooked, pasteurised, and ready to be dished – an ever more key point. 

“While this satisfies the commercial side of the business, we have also had significant gains in R&D projects to develop unique plant-based products that are enhanced by the sous vide process. We opened a sous vide plant in San Antonio and this is becoming the standard bearer for sustainable food manufacturing. Many of our partners are looking keenly at this trendy plant-based sector and want to support sustainable practices.” 

At WTCE, Cuisine Solutions will be showcasing innovations developed by its chefs based in the U.S, France and Thailand using local ingredients. The emphasis is on plant-based products and portables. 

 In Japan, ANA Catering also reports things on the up. Tim Zandbergen said: “Things are looking positive. ANA and other airlines have plans to increase flights amid ongoing changes to immigration guidelines and we have some really exciting projects in hand including one drawing on the company’s Japanese culinary knowledge and skills to offer menus to airlines flying into Japan. We may extend this into retail sales as there is an increasing demand for authentic, healthy Japanese food products. We have an affiliated company in Los Angeles that produces quality products and we are planning to extend this project to Europe and China soon.”


Zandbergen added: “As a core stance we did not lay off staff in times of downturn so we retained qualified, trained chefs and teams. This means we have all the essential people in place as things turn around. Japan’s airlines have been severely affected by strict entry requirements but we have used that valuable quieter time to train/retrain and educate employees, renovate our catering facilities, undertake improvement projects, obtain certifications such as Halal, EU HACCP, and grow our non-airline business.

This was a stance also taken by Bangkok Air Catering which says it took on and developed its talent during the downturn and that this is already  reaping business benefits. 

Singapore-based SATS will exhibit at WTCE this year, alongside its UK brand Monty’s Bakehouse, as it develops strategies for the future through a new S$150m food hub and innovation centre. Due for completion in 2024, 20,000 sqm hub will include food manufacturing, production kitchens, innovation lab, warehousing and logistics centre, food court and experiential centre.

Kerry Mok, SATS CEO, said: “Automating our meal production processes changes the landscape significantly to benefit our partners. It will enable us to implement hi-tech food production to achieve cost efficiency, strengthen operational resilience and create greater opportunities for upskilling our people.

In the special meals arena Marc Warde, founder Libero/Niche Free-from Kitchen added: “Special meals are in huge demand and people want clear new assurances around allergies which requires proper expertise and dedicated facilities. We have never been so busy as we are now!