(July 25) With cutbacks in service, increases in ticket prices and charges for checked bags, airlines have been scaling back in recent months.

And when it comes to meal service, airlines have also been cutting back to curtail expenses.

Denver-based Frontier Airlines, however, recently added menu offerings featuring fresh fruit and vegetables, part of the company’s overall focus on fresh foods.

Udi’s Handcrafted Foods, Denver, began supplying Frontier with salads and fruit cups for select Airbus flights beginning July 1. Udi’s Handcrafted Foods is a bakery and a fresh food distribution company that sources from Denver-based Fresh Pack Produce Inc. and Sysco Corp.’s national produce distributor FreshPoint Inc., Houston.

“About two years ago, Frontier came to know us because they were thinking of putting our granola on their planes,” said Etai Baron, chief executive officer of Udi Handcrafted Foods. “The important thing was the CEO of Frontier came from Air Canada, which had a fresh food program. He brought those ideas to Frontier and when they started looking around they saw we were doing a premium product with nice packaging, labeling and high quality.”

Baron said he didn’t seek out opportunities to serve airlines.

“This opportunity has more to do with what the airline is trying to do rather than what we’re trying to do,” he said. “It’s a huge endeavor for us to take on.”

Udi’s Handcrafted Foods has one commercial kitchen, in Denver, where sandwiches, salads, fruit cups and other menu options are assembled. Only flights leaving the Frontier hub there will be offering passengers Udi’s Handcrafted Foods salads, which include a Southwest Grilled Chicken salad with chopped green leaf and spring mix, chopped citrus herb marinated chicken breast, ranch dressing, black beans, tomato, jalapeños, shredded cheddar, fried tortilla strips and corn. The fruit cup will contain a mix of seasonal fruit, he said.

September Wade, spokeswoman for American Airlines, said airline caterers LSG Sky Chefs, Frankfurt, Germany, and Gate Gourmet, with co-headquarters in Reston, Va., and Zurich, Switzerland, provide fresh fruits and vegetables included in complimentary meals to first class and business flyers, as well as paid meals for passengers in coach seating.

“The menus rotate monthly and they try to offer a variety of meat dishes with vegetables such as green beans, carrots, brussels sprouts or tomatoes,” she said. “On international flights we offer a full-course meal that has a dinner salad, followed by the entree with vegetables. Desserts could be seasonal fruits and berries.”

When it comes to offering fruits and vegetables to customers who don’t have a choice of where they’re going to dine, chefs take into consideration much more than taste when deciding what ends up on the menu.

“There are many things to consider when developing a dish to be eaten at 35,000 feet,” said chef Nancy Brussat Barocci, of Convito Café & Market, Wilmette, Ill., an advisor for American Airlines. “It requires an understanding of dishes that can translate well to the large catering kitchens, dishes that can be reheated to optimum taste in airplane galley kitchens, and dishes that reflect both national and international flavors.”

At Gourmet, which has nearly 100 kitchens that provide meals to more than 200 airlines worldwide, chef Kevin Miller said when preparing menu ideas he has to take into consideration how the body reacts to food in an aircraft on long flights. He chooses foods for their calming effects as well as taste.

“We’ve introduced things like squash blossoms, which have a natural tendency to ease your digestive system,” he said. “We’ll fuse that into a crepe for a breakfast item. It adds a sense of freshness, but also helps produce a sense of wellness.”

On international flights, he said the airline strives to keep passengers relaxed and fresh produce plays an important part.

“Most international flights depart after 8 p.m. Passengers want to sleep and wake up refreshed when they land,” he said. “With fruits we play more with stone fruits, melons, items that provide a lot of color and flavor and by the composition on the plate try to promote something different than what they’re going to see in their local restaurant.”

With salads, he said seasonality and availability dictate what is included on the menu.

“That’s primarily because of current conditions with fuel prices,” Miller said. “All of our customers (the airlines) are still looking at that air of elegance, but they also have to monitor their costs. We’re purchasing the items at the appropriate time and taking advantage of cost savings related to the customer.”

Miller said the company’s Innovation Culinary Excellence program involves its chefs visiting growers located as close to its numerous kitchens as possible in order to hand pick product as they develop menus.

“We want to see it and taste it and check it out right from the farm so we have a better understanding what we’re receiving,” he said. “We can work with the farm and actually talk to them you have a better understanding when things are available. We discuss availability with farmers and some will try to capture that business.”

To assure year-round availability, the company has established relationships with suppliers in every region it has a kitchen.

“We work with produce distributors who deal in local, regional and in some cases multi-state markets,” said Joe Vigh, procurement manager for perishables. “Our situation is what I call a tractor model; it’s a pulling type of operation. The chef and the client customers specify the products they need and we go and provide it for them. We don’t push the product.”

Vigh said because Gate Gourmet serves so many airlines around the world it is constantly challenged to find fresh produce that meets their passengers’ individual needs and tastes.

“Some of them are very ethnic and (have) very thinly traded volumes, but what emerges is when you take it in total the flavor profiles seem to converge on a few selected items, so we do have some substantial volumes in the U.S. in key items, such as honeydew melons, red seedless grapes and chopped romaine lettuce,” he said. “On a yearly basis, we buy in excess of 1 million cases of fruits and vegetables.”

Atlanta-based Delta Airlines serves fresh fruits with breakfast in its first-class section on domestic long-haul and international flights.

“We serve a cup of fresh fruit that is typically based on the seasons,” said Anthony Black, spokesman. “They have strawberries, grapes, pineapples, cantaloupes and honeydews. We also serve salads with meals and vegetables.”

Airlines turn focus to more fresh produce in meals
Gate Gourmet executive chefs (from left) Yoshi Tanaka, Kevin Miller and Carlos Gonzales visit Jansal Valley Farms in New Bedford, Mass., to select organic vegetables.

Courtesy Gate Gourmet