This week we’re delighted to welcome Paula Kraft, founder and President of Atlanta, GA-based Tastefully Yours Catering, as a regular contributor to BlueSky.
When a Lemon is not a Lemon: Catering Assumptions
Years ago I was scolded for delivering a whole lemon as part of the catering order. I was told it had to be sliced, because a person cannot slice a lemon on board a private aircraft, and I,
being the professional, should have known that.
Well guess what? I didn’t. I decided it was a communication issue. When I was told to deliver a lemon, I assumed the person on the other end of the phone meant a whole lemon. As I took orders for other aircraft catering, I realized that there were a lot of assumptions being made on both sides of the fence. The person on the other end of the phone assumed I knew what she wanted – a sliced lemon. First and foremost, don’t assume. Don’t assume anything even if you place an order with this caterer or food source on a daily basis.
Placing a catering order and taking a catering order is a learned skill. It cannot and should not be taken lightly or you can expect disaster, rather than disaster adverted. Give your crews specific training in the procedures of ordering catering and I can assure you that it will end up cutting your catering costs in the long run, you will see less waste at the end of a flight and still see satisfied stomachs when the trip ends.
It is a tribute to the skill and professionalism of flight attendants or flight techs that they are able to elegantly serve and prepare multiple courses, on multiple legs to multiple people in the constraints of an aircraft galley. Most crews have taught themselves to adapt to the aircraft environment, its storage, and its cooking equipment. Since they have each adapted to the galley, there are a million and one ways they have discovered to make things work. We, in the catering industry, call this creativity.
Within one company, you may have 4-5 flight attendants and each and every one has their own system to pull off the miracle of food service at 35,000 feet. Over the last 35 years, we have found that each trip is different with different flight crews, different demands on the crew for meal service and different passengers. And let’s not forget the dietary restrictions and food allergies they must contend with. If I start by assuming you want the food in microwave containers because that is always the way you have gotten it in the past, then what happens to the meal service if that aircraft’s microwave is not working or for some reason? Every catering order must be given and received with certain critical information. If this information is correctly conveyed, it will eliminate assumptions that will cause incorrect items delivered to the aircraft.
The first and easiest bit of information to include is the day of the week and the time of day. Seems simple enough, but seriously this error occurs often, especially if you don’t provide both day and time. Over the years of accepting orders, you would be surprised how often we are given a delivery date that does not match the day of the week requested. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? This simple detail can make the difference in whether the order is delivered on the correct day or at the correct time. Let’s all use the 24 hour clock to convey a delivery time. If they don’t match, it is reason for the food supplier to contact the person who placed the order . . . Disaster adverted.
The caterer needs the time of delivery, not the time of departure. If you offer the wheels up time, it may be written on the order sheet. When the food source routes the deliveries, the wheels up time might be inadvertently placed on the route sheet as a delivery time. I do not need to know the wheels up time. I need to know the delivery time. The only instance where knowledge of wheels up time might be necessary is if the order is a rush or a last minute order and the caterer needs to know how fast they must move to get the food to the aircraft.
Secondly, please leave a contact name and contact number. Questions arise. There may be a question about how you want something prepared, or that an item requested is not available and a substitution needs to be made. If you don’t want surprises on your end when the catering arrives, provide some sort of contact information. If I can’t reach you, then I get to choose what you are going to get. I can assure you that chances are it will not be what you expected. Although, I can do many things, I can’t read minds. If the FBO is the only contact I have, and there is a question, it is customary for them to make the decision for you. Do they know what you want and need? For example, we call the FBO and ask them if the client specified a bread type for this order? And they respond, No. It can be considered “dealers choice,” and I get to choose. What if you have a gluten or wheat allergy and I send our regular hearty wheat bread?
With your flexible work schedule, I often wonder how you know what country, much less what city you are in when you call to place your catering order. I travel a great deal (not nearly as much as your crews) flying around the world hitting multiple cities on the trip to work with caterers and flight departments. I recently landed in Paris, totally exhausted and tried to have the car service take me to my hotel—one slight problem. The address and hotel name I gave the driver was in Zurich. Until this trip, I couldn’t understand how anyone wouldn’t know where they were or at what airport they were going to land. It makes total sense to me now when we get a catering request and ask the person placing the order where we should deliver the catering and they can’t tell us. What complicates it even more for the crews is that there may be two Atlantics, two Signatures, or two Landmarks in the same city, but at different airports. That same airport more than likely has private flight department hangars as possible destinations for the aircraft. We can generally track down the location or assume the location, but, do you want to assume I know where to deliver the catering?
With every item ordered – even a simple lemon – please identify how you want it prepared. If you do not specify, then I get to choose. So how many ways can I prepare a lemon? This reminds me of the movie Forrest Gump and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company when the actor starts naming hundreds of ways to prepare shrimp. I too have lots of options. I can slice the lemon, cut it into tea slices, half slices, wedges, wagon wheels, halves, wrap in muslin, make it into a crown, a fish, a twist, a knot. And the list goes on. As you chuckle, I have the same number if not more options with every single item you request! Even to the size and brand of bottled water. I can only assume what your end use will be or what your passenger preferences are. If you are not specific, then I get to choose. Being specific = disaster adverted.
As with the preparation of each item, you must also be prepared to specify the packaging of each item. How do you want me to deliver that lemon? In a snap seal bag, in a plastic bowl, a glass bowl, in a foil tin or microwave container? What about the aircraft with only an oven and everything arrives in a microwave container? Most often the packaging request is because of the way a flight crew member has taught themselves to adapt to their galley. They have developed their own rhythm and technique to store, prepare and serve food with the limited space on board. Only they know what nooks and crannies they have in which to place catering.
One very important aspect of packaging is determined by the aircraft configuration. Are the food platters being passed by a flight crew member or are they pre-plated and set in front of each passenger to consume? Or is the flight attendant plating the food the catering should be packed bulk? Do they need to be plastic or glass? Should they come on plastic to be transferred to aircraft china? Are they being placed for each table to share one platter? Very few aircraft can seat eight or more passengers around one table to share, so catering should be requested to meet the seating placement of the aircraft. One table for 4, 2 tables for 2, 3 individual places at the sofa or a single chair.
If using an aviation-specific caterer, we are familiar with the varied sizes of pans that are possible for aircraft, but if not, a hotel or restaurant may not realize the miniature versions of kitchen equipment aircraft have. Does the aircraft microwave have very short interior height? What size container will fit? If not provided with the dimensions, we could place your food in the wrong size container. I often suggest that a flight department make a list of each aircraft’s galley equipment, with interior dimensions, so the flight crew or person placing the catering order can provide this information to the caterer. Wouldn’t it be great to have this on file for the contract flight attendant as well? Once you have this information on file, if not given to the food source when the catering order is placed, then I can use that very valuable contact number. This one item can make or break the catering experience. If you don’t provide this, then I get to choose.
There is a large difference between the United States and the rest of the world when it comes to food portions. (There is so much information and variables that this one topic will have to be an article unto itself.) Yes, we like to eat and we like large portions for the most part. When the international flight arrives in the US and orders catering for the departing flight, a culture shock takes place. The portions are generally seen as extravagant and too large. The flight crew is shocked at the cost of the catering, and most of all, at the quantities of food to stow away. And the same happens in reverse when a US aircraft orders catering in another country. Sandwich fillings are much smaller and appear skimpy compared to the excessive portion size delivered in their home base. So what do you do? When speaking with the caterer or other food source, you must inquire what the portion size is, how many ounces or grams, how many pieces are provided per person. You can determine how much you want based on the preferences of your passengers and crew and eliminate the waste or lack of quantity. Ask the caterer for assistance when you are ordering multiple items for one leg as the more items you order, the less of each item you need to serve your total passenger load.
We sell multitudes of fruit, crudité, dessert, and sandwich trays. If you call our kitchen and place an order for six passengers and want six portions of each, my first comment to you is how long is the flight? Unless you are flying for hours and plan to spread the food service out for 5-6 hours (which without refrigeration is unsafe), then you have too much food and will end up with a lot of leftover catering. No one wants to see the leftovers. It is seen as added costs that were not necessary, essentially money thrown away. By creating dialog between the food source and the person placing the catering order you can save money and negative feedback at the other end of the trip – and a disaster adverted.