Julie Baxter

As the North American market becomes increasingly competitive, and passenger expectations rise, caterers and brokers are tapping into top foodie trends and helping to drive quality innovations onboard, says Julie Baxter

Change is afoot among American carriers and the spotlight has firmly turned onto improving the passenger experience. All the major U.S. carriers are focused on improving quality and looking for ways to make an impact in food and beverage as well as respond to wider health and eco trends.

Delta is upgrading its main cabin service from November and refreshing its Flight Fuel buy-on-board range, whilst also seasonally rotating, chef-designed entrées for pre-ordering in Delta One. United has an on-going programme of collaborations with recognised chef alumni from The Trotter Project for premium cabins. And American Airlines has focused on the roll out of a la carte dining in its Flagship Lounges, reflecting trends with local sourcing and plant-based Impossible burgers on the menu.

Paul Platamone, vp sales & marketing at at HACO, says: “The service levels are certainly improving and the offer is evolving with upgrades of the tray set taking it beyond hot entrée, salad, roll and dessert.

“Key carriers have been hyper-focused on their transatlantic and Asia Economy products as these are where they can make the biggest impact on quality and passenger satisfaction.

“There are certainly opportunities for concise spending and upgrades but ultimately change is all constrained by the operational factors. That is the challenge we suppliers and caterers always have to bring them back to, so as to ensure their aspirations are actually deliverable.”

Nicolas Rondeau, Flying Food Group executive vp airline sales and marketing, recognises it’s a competitive market and says: “The trend is towards simplicity, featuring top-quality ingredients in innovative, original menu presentations. There is an emphasis on healthy ingredients and an increasing preference for local and organic produce.
“We are getting new customers, and existing customers are extending into new routes and adding business. We are being propelled by very positive current growth, so we are expanding capacity and efficiencies at our catering kitchens, with a particular focus on the west coast and in Hawaii.”

Foreign carriers represent 90% of the FFG’s customer base and as international arrivals in the U.S. increase, and domestic airlines add international routes, he believes ‘the sky’s the limit’ for positive future growth.

Culinary creativity

Meanwhile, dnata Catering has made a concerted push into the region this year and divisional senior vp, Robin Padgett, says: “We think we can lift the standard of culinary across the U.S. and we’re getting positive feedback from customers already. We’ve been able to bring more international flavours and experience to the team and believe the differentiator for us will be to offer genuine five-star culinary and creativity.”

He predicts the inflight experience, from food and beverage to connectivity, will continue to improve and says airlines have recognised that onboard product and service is a key way to differentiate themselves from their competitors and drive long-term customer loyalty.

“Passenger expectations continue to increase as global travel becomes more accessible and travellers experience the varied levels of service on offer. Our experience as a global partner to many leading, service-driven long-haul airlines will be a key strategic benefit for us in North America. Our existing customers are turning to us to give them confidence they can grow in the U.S. with consistency of product and service.”

With a reputation for VIP and charter expertise and technology, dnata says it is supporting U.S. airlines in the setting of menus by providing video tutorials and training to partner kitchens. This means it can often manage catering for an entire VIP itinerary, including outside of its owned
global network.

Special meal challenge

Dan Day, at AMI Inflight, notes: “The airlines are trying to move more and more towards traditional restaurant-style food onboard. However, they are restricted by only having airline convection ovens. Thus they work with their suppliers to come up with menus that fit their vision and are ready to be heated onboard. It is not an easy challenge but the food is getting better constantly.”

The AMI team was challenged by one major U.S. carrier to offer a new solution for special meals and, after extensive research in collaboration with the airline and its caterers, created and introduced a new ‘Special Selections’ range.

Based on IATA special meal codes and guidelines, there is a kit for each code containing an entrée, bread, butter/margarine or alternative, cheese and crackers or suitable alternatives, salad dressing and dessert. There is also a second service solution, which can be packed in the same box.

AMI-sourced products that would freeze and provide the required quality. Where a fresh component – such as a green salad – was required, it was prepared and added by the caterer. The remaining items are simply removed from the kit and placed on the tray set-up or in the designated boarding location.

Andrea Pratt, AMI director of product development, says: “This is more than a kit. It’s a total solution. We closely analysed data to develop a predictive model so we produce as needed. This improves speed-to-market for product changes and enhancements while ensuring a clear liability chain.”

The team is now developing a range of kits that support the meals being offered by a majority of airlines. These will contain branded products but no specific airline designations, to create a global solution at volume for both Premium and Economy cabins.

Pratt adds: “Airlines and caterers alike have a classic love-hate relationship with special meals. They are an important part of onboard service to support our customer base but are fraught with challenges because the erratic volume of special meal orders makes forecasts difficult. The resources required to manage the programme, the variety of products required to meet all requirements, and the risk of non-compliant components further add to the challenge, as does the need for consistency and effective waste management.”

Brokers too note the trend to free-from and healthier options. Megan Schmitt, for AirlineMporium says: “AirlineMporium has seen an increase in airlines wanting to serve passengers F&B rich in plant-based protein and with nutrition benefits.

“There is a shift toward sustainability too and demand for real, natural ingredients like beans, peas, grains and nuts. Passengers don’t want to sacrifice flavour and taste inflight, they love to eat well and optimise health. They want plant-based products that are high-protein but remind them of great-tasting mainstream brands.”

She has noted a significant increase in demand for chickpea products for example; whether it be roasted chickpeas, chickpea pasta, chickpea puffs or hummus. Said to promote fullness and keep appetites under control, chickpeas prove particularly useful for the growing number of passengers seeking vegan or gluten-free options.

Brands such as that Biena and Hippeas fit the bill, offering healthy chickpea snacks in single-serve packaging. The Mozaics brand also finds favour as the first real organic popped veggie and potato chips, with 40% real split beans and peas. The crunchy triangular potato chips provide protein and fibre and come in five flavours, including sea salt, barbecue, cheddar, sour cream and onion and spicy salsa.

Focus on fresh

Kim Brown, director at DFMi, agrees the demand for more and more fresh options for both retail and complimentary service is strong with a further focus on local specialities. She expects new regional, route- specific products likely to get onboard in the coming months. Clearly full-service carriers are keen to reflect trends in their complimentary ranges but with 100% of domestic travellers completely accepting of the buy-on-board model, the focus on retail yield means keeping up with trends impacts the financials too.

Brown says: “Airlines are working with restaurants and big-name chefs for their
buy-on-board menus to give their passengers more of a fresh restaurant-style menu in the sky. They are always looking for ways to create healthier menus and snack options since that is what people are requesting more and more.”

Beyond fresh and bespoke menus, it is the healthy snacks category which is gaining greatest headway with gluten-free, allergen-free and healthy options gaining momentum. Two particularly popular partners in this category and are Wildway and 88 Acres. Both are growing quickly in retail and Wildway recently became the American Airlines’ breakfast accompaniment with Chobani yogurt. It can also be offered as a snack later in the day.

Brown believes the millennial influence is a strong driver in this, as the next generation takes on more airline management roles and also become a bigger proportion of the travelling public. “I think 2020 will bring a combination of partnerships with suppliers in the fresh and healthy snack categories, whose main customer base is within the millennial demographics. Aligning marketing teams from airlines with owners of boutique-type products is a win-win for all.”

Research from Mintel confirms the popularity of plant-based nutrition and highlights trong growth in non-dairy milks in the U.S over the past five years, growing 61% since 2012, and now worth an estimated $2.11 billion.

According to its stats, 1 in 5 Americans say they are consuming less dairy for health reasons.
While almond (64% market share), soy (13% market share) and coconut (12% market share) remain staples in the category, new non-dairy milk types are joining the repertoire including pecan, quinoa, hazelnut and flax milks. Mintel stats show new varieties have experienced fast growth in popularity
“We predict that new plant bases such as cashew and rice will allow new entrants into the non-dairy milk category to eventually surpass the soy milk segment, one of the first non-dairy milk segments to really take off with consumers,” says Megan Hambleton, beverage analyst at Mintel.

Ice and easy

U.S spices, seasoning and condiment specialist McCormick & Company produces a regular McCormick Flavour Forecast which aims to identify top trends and ingredients. The flavour trend this summer pointed to drinks using shaved ice, craft cocktails with low or no alcohol, creamy creations and veg flavoured cold drinks.

Classic summertime coolers like lemonade and slushies have been making way for more complex and exotic creations such as grapefruit, basil and shaved ice mocktails, blackberry sweet potato ices, chilli-spiced watermelon rosé granita and a blueberry vanilla calamansi (Philippine lime) juice, buttermilk masala chaas drinks, and frozen kaffir lime pies.

“The trend reflects an increased craving for bold flavour experiences and non-alcoholic cocktails,” says McCormick executive chef, Kevan Vetter.

The company notes growing online searches for mocktails and non-alcoholic cocktails and also an interest in savoury beverages that spotlight the goodness of veggies combined with flavours of mint, dill, ginger, cinnamon, blackberries and pineapple said to refresh and energise.

Creamy creations inspired by subtropical regions like India and Thailand are taking over from milkshakes with the likes of buttermilk masala chaas, frozen kaffir lime pie, and mango lassi bites with coconut cream featuring both dairy and plant-based ingredients.

Generational shift

Platamone – who is stepping down as IFSA president at the end of the expo this September – believes the next generation of traveller is only just beginning to make its opinions and demands known. He says: “Sustainability is certainly becoming important. Green initiatives in Europe are way ahead of the U.S. and it is a minefield that we all have to work to understand but plant-based foods are certainly picking up a head of steam driven by millennial demands.

“There is always a generation gap but we are now in a transition period moving away from the baby boomer dominance. We are only just starting to be clear on what the next generation wants but things certainly feel different; the next generation is coming forward with its views and desires but it will be a while before we can really see the impact clearly.”