Every time I speak at a conference someone in the audience asks the question “why does my box lunch cost so much? What makes it so special?” Let’s talk about the cost of catering from a caterer’s viewpoint.
I must start by defending the caterer and the prices you are charged. The majority of us love this business and get a thrill our of serving you and your passengers. We get a feeling of accomplishment when we prepare an order out of thin air and get it delivered at a moment’s notice because your key passenger just decided he would like food on the next leg. I have yet to meet a rich aviation caterer. Along with other conscientious caterers I want to be here for the long term; I am not here to make a quick buck and retire. I want your repeat business; I want you to feel you received value for your money. Let me explain some of the reasons your catering bill appears high, and then I’ll give you some useful hints on how you might be able to reduce the costs. Following are eight of the major factors which go into pricing your order: Hours of Operation, Insurance, Delivery Expense, Specialized Requests, Packaging, and Extra Steps, Certification and Training, and Commission and Fees.
Hours of operation
If I were a “normal” caterer with bookings weeks in advance for a large group of people, all ordering the same things to eat, I could staff my kitchen accordingly. We do not operate that way. We essentially sit “on go” waiting for the orders to come in. We must always have hot chefs, garde manager (cold food chefs), expeditors, and delivery and office staff waiting for your call. We are geared up, ready to respond at a moment’s notice, and keeping a staff on 24/7/365 is expensive.
Aviation clients are in a high risk group as is the caterer who services them. Our liability insurance premiums which covers your passengers and crews’ well being are astronomical. Your passengers are the movers and shakers of the world… the top 5 % of the world’s most powerful and wealthiest, they are all VVIPs. I believe Insurance companies’ motivation for such high premiums is to make us more diligent in food safety practices. The CDC estimates $35,000.00 USD per case in medical expense, lost income, lost time to the company, and temporary labor replacement of that person. In addition to delivery/ vehicle insurance, food liability insurance, I also carry insurance on the contents of my refrigeration units? Why? Imagine a possible power outage, food sitting in an unsafe temperature zone, or the possible thaw of a frozen item. Would you rather I have that extra insurance so I can discard the affected items rather than try to save money by trying to salvage them. And let’s not forget building insurance, workers compensation insurance, and staff health insurance. Because aviation caterers are family owned business with few to insure, our premiums are higher. Did you know that kitchen workers are high on the list of most hazardous jobs?
Most caterers charge for delivery, not as a money maker, but, in an effort to break even. We figure the cost of a delivery by distance traveled. Other caterers have other formulas, but this one works for us – The cost of the driver, the cost of the fuel, the cost of vehicle insurance (our is higher because of our proximity to multi-million dollar aircraft), and the cost of maintenance of the vehicle, as well as depreciation. We attempt to batch deliver to airports to keep this price down. We estimate that on each trip we will carry an average number of orders. Divide the expenses by that average number of orders and that is our charge. Because many orders come to us with little or no notice, we must always have a driver on hand to make sure your food is delivered on time. Unforeseen traffic or accidents that block traffic increase the normal delivery labor times.
Aviation caterers must be able to quickly turn around an order and be available on holidays when restaurants are closed. Our delivery crews are trained in the safe handling of food to protect the passengers and crews. Their continued training does not come cheap, and that too is figured into the cost of the food.
Menu, Have it your Way (Specialized Requests)
One of the biggest expenses for the caterer that gets passed along to your catering invoice is that you can have anything your passenger or crew want. We have no limits as to what we will provide or secure for you. If your passenger wants something, they expect you to do your best to obtain it. There’s a charge for this. The aviation caterer is limited only by the imagination of those placing the orders. We may spend hours locating and purchasing something your client wants on board. Yes, we do have a menu; actually I think ours is a beautiful menu, loaded with pictures of delicious food, BUT, your client may want something different. It is my job to get it, or make it, pack it and deliver it – no limits!. Your passenger is on a heart healthy diet but really loves chicken carbonara ( high fat, high calorie, high carb…all the things he shouldn’t have.) We have to get creative and take out all of those nasty things and make it healthy for one person. It takes my chef as much time to make one portion of low fat, low calorie, low carb chicken carbonara as it does for him to make 10 portions of the same thing. Therefore, the cost is higher than what you think of as normal. The aviation caterer does not have the luxury to make 20, 30, or even 100 portions of the same thing. Inevitably it is making one of this two of that, each made to your special specifications. What if you need two sugar free slices of chocolate cake? I need to make an entire cake, but, what happens if I don’t sell much sugar free chocolate cake? How do I cover the cost of ingredients and my pastry chef’s time to prepare two slices? Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to pull off the sugar free cake for you, but what happens to the leftovers? As part of our kitchen procedures we perform what is called FIFO- First in, first out? I must discard if I can’t sell the rest of the cake or I give it away to staff rather than wasting it before it spoils. No one wants a three- day old cake, so after it is made, its value for selling rapidly decreases.
A friend and colleague of mine, Nicola Hubert ,who owns Marsden Catering, a respected catering operation in Zurich Switzerland, once described the cost of catering to me. “You, the client have the opportunity to decide in advance what type of food you want, French, Italian, Lebanese or whatever you fancy. You make your restaurant selection based on what you choose. You go to that restaurant, sit down and select from their menu. The menu is fixed and limited to just what they want to prepare. But, when you are flying and you make your menu selections, we, the aviation caterer, must now be all of those restaurants and have skilled staff to provide a variety of foods that you want. We are now a single source with 6 to 10 restaurants all rolled into one bundle, with 6 to 10 menus all containing different seasonings, different meats, different preparations. This requires more inventory and more expense for the caterer.
Why am I more expensive than a restaurant? They are able to buy ingredients, produced to their own specifications, literally by the train car load directly from the manufacturer . The restaurants are able to guarantee total volume to be purchased over a given period of time, at a preset price. Most often, purchasing by the train car load enables them to save at least 50-75% on the cost of the items used. These locations offer food from a set menu, with their predetermined brands and ingredients. The customer is not able to request ”salt free or low fat” or a specific brand. The consumer takes what is offered. Some of our clients specify certain brands and prohibit others.
The aviation caterer must meet all of your dietary restrictions and be able to prepare special meals for those with allergies. Restaurants have limited menu s which allow them to stock fewer items, and carry fewer inventories. An aviation caterer is ruled by whatever the client wants, not by a given menu. We specialize in providing meals to each and every special request. In relation to food costs, please think of this. Because you generally order in small amounts, and without notice, I must purchase from my approved vendors in small quantities. The less of an item I purchase, the more it costs me. Each time I send an employee to purchase items for an aircraft, I have added cost and labor to the final charge of that food or grocery item. Also consider that if I do purchase in large amounts, the pieces left in the case purchase more than likely will reach their expiration date before they are sold; thus my waste factor increases as does the cost.
Packaging for aviation is more specialized, therefore costlier. We must accommodate very small serving places and storage, and unique aircraft seating configurations that determine how many trays, tray sizes and the number of portions per tray. Aircraft packaging must be secure and leakproof to prevent liquids and sauces from escaping and cross contaminating other foods and risking a possible food borne illness.
Most packaging needs to be a higher quality, and of better presentation presence because of the guests we are serving. A simple Styrofoam box will not do. Those who are fortunate to fly on a business jet dine at the Ritz and the Four Seasons – not at a local gas station or take away restaurants where food is delivered in a paper bag or box, wrapped in a waxed paper. They expect better. Better quality is also for their safety. Trays and platters need to break rather than shatter so as not to cause cuts; metal trays must have rolled edges rather than a stamped sharp edge. Shape and size of packaging needs to be considered so they don’t become flying projectiles during turbulence. The packaging for an aircraft needs to be durable, not unwieldy which may cause food to spill and engender costly cleaning. Aircraft packaging needs to be secure under pressure lest it explode at high altitude. Your aviation caterer needs to take size and weight into consideration and understand your limited storage capabilities. Aircraft packaging needs to resist an interaction between the food and the equipment. It must be food safe. Many caterers are forced to purchase items retail for your catering rather than make something NOT designed for an aircraft usage do. For these reasons and more, packaging and pricing should be compared to that of room service at a five star hotel. Everything delivered to your room is beautifully presented, on nice china at about the same price as your aircraft catering prices, with two exceptions. The hotel delivers in the same building on their schedule and they get their dishes back. The aviation caterer doesn’t have these same luxuries.
The extra steps
Aviation catering has several additional steps in the handling of food that is inherent only to aviation which must also be considered in the costs of catering. Generally speaking with ordinary catering, when I drop off the catering, I am done with it. My responsibility is complete. But with aviation, there are several additional steps that only an aviation specific caterer is aware of. Is your catering delivered hot? Cold? Does it need ice packs? Does it require a cooler bag? Is it maintained at 141 degrees to prevent the growth of bacteria or if a cold sandwich or fruit tray is delivered, is it is being transported at 41 degrees or below? Who checks? Who asked if the caterer or handler is taking these precautions on your behalf?
If your catering was ordered from a restaurant, do you have any idea how long that hot meal was held, increasing the number of food borne microorganisms found in that food for each minute it was held? Was that food sold close to the four hour life of the food or was it just prepared fresh? Restaurants produce food to be immediately eaten; this is called cook serve. Aviation food is prepared in a cook chill environment. It may be cooked, but then it is rapidly chilled to below 41 degrees to slow bacteria growth. Grocery stores and restaurants do not have blast chillers in their kitchens; these can cost as much as a new car. In our kitchen, they are a necessity.
Certification and Training
The cost of training an aviation catering staff is extensive and expensive ,and that cost has to be passed along to the client.. Unlike a restaurant with set hours and a set schedule for staffing, the aviation caterer must staff more hours in any given day just to cover the orders that come in at random times. We are open or on call for you 24 hours a day, and with that comes a price. Since we have more shifts to cover than a restaurant that only serves dinner, we must have more certified trained staff on the payroll. Aviation catering is unlike any other type of catering business. Taking an order correctly takes time and lots of training to get it right. In our kitchen an employee must have three months of training to take an order, a chef must be assistant for one year before he/she is to be left alone. The day that all aircraft galleys are identical , with the same equipment, the same sizes, and the flight crews are all trained in menu planning, food safety and handling, the learning curve for our industry’s caterers will be less. Drivers must be trained in airport signage and airport security, and must receive special permits to deliver. All these have costs associated with them. It is a cost of business unlike any other catering operation and must be passed on to you.
Another food related expense that affects the price of catering is my safety management procedures to audit all of my vendors, my food sources. Before I can purchase from a company, I need to do my homework on this vendor. Do they have the proper licensing? Do they carry insurance? Are they inspected by a local health authority, do they have security measures in place? If they are approved, I need to check out their vendors. Where do they buy their supplies? Do they meet the same requirements? And their vendors? I must show my due diligence before purchasing a product from any vendor for you to eat . I cannot assume it is safe.. I need to trace the product ingredients back to the farm and make sure all their sources meet my company standards and your company’s Safety Management System for Catering. And I do this why? Because I am providing food for you….the movers and shakers of the world.
Commission and Fees
Are you aware that many FBOs, handlers, and operators add on a fee for arranging the catering for you? Often times that fee exceeds the margins the caterer makes. We pay fees to place food in FBO coolers or in many cases actually provide the refrigeration at the facilities to keep your catering in the prescribed safe temperature zone until it is loaded on your aircraft. Credit card fees and handling charges may cost more for the caterer because we are unable to negotiate a less expensive rate than a large conglomerate.
You can save:
Now here is where your flight department can save money. Consider portion size and the amount of food being ordered. What does the caterer you are ordering from consider a portion? There are no standards to guide us in portion control. It is a matter of choice on the part of the caterer. Ask questions when you place the order.
How much weight is that for fruit, number of pieces, slices, etc.? Most people will eat about 12 bites of food with a beverage in an hour. How many times are you ordering something simple and easy like a fruit tray, vegetable tray, finger sandwiches, and small desserts? You have seven passengers so you order each for seven Really? That would give you about 48 pieces of food for that one hour. I blame caterers if they don’t advise you not to order this for seven, but each item for four or even five . I suggest that you initiate a weight-based ordering system ( by ounces and grams)rather than a portion system ( one person, two persons, etc.) to save money avoid excessive waste in leftover catering. This will account for a big savings on the final bill.
That consumption amount will be even less for women; sport team players, having just played a game, will require more. Portion size is an interesting topic that requires a future separate article. In the meantime, You need to ask questions. What is your portion size, how big, how many, what does it include? Does that entrée include a salad, rolls and dessert? If it does, you don’t need to order these items separately.
You can also save amounts from 10% to 50% of the total charges simply by placing the catering order directly from the caterer rather than a middle source.
In conclusion, a specialty caterer is in business for the love of the business. In speaking with aviation caterers around the world, I hear the same comments from all of them without exception. “I love the rush of pulling the order out of thin air and making the flight.” The challenge of getting it all together is a thrill, a sense of accomplishment. The profit margin for an aviation caterer is probably the lowest margin of any food business, requires the most work for the amount charged and is by far the most stressful. I love what I do, and have a personal sense of fulfillment at the end of the each day. I take pride in what I have accomplished , or I can assure you that I would close the doors on aviation and go into the wedding or party, or office lunch business where I can have regular set hours, bring employees in only when there is work, and make large portions of exactly what I need without waste from a preset menu. But for me that holds no challenges.