September 14 2023  |  Catering

Catered to you: A look at speciality meals

By Stephanie Philp

This is a special feature from PAX International’s September 2023 IFSA EXPO issue on page 20.

Sebastian Schäfer, Manager Culinary Excellence, LSG

Regardless of the row a passenger is sitting in, there is no question that feeling catered to is going to make a flight more enjoyable. It could be the option of choosing a window or an aisle seat, or being offered a good selection of inflight shopping options that make a flight one to remember. Arguably though, the most important part of what passengers walk away thinking about is great inflight meal service.

“Everybody appreciates hospitality,” Chef Sean Wheaton said, in our June report about bringing the “Wow” factor back to travel. “People just want to know that their dietary needs are being thought about and that there’s not a one-size- fits-all approach, no matter what goes on in the cabin or in the lounge.”

Special meals are important to passengers, many of whom are making the choice for different reasons — be that religious or because of an allergy. Currently, many large airlines include special meal programs as part of their inflight services. IATA has a list of special meal codes available for airlines to use and, for the most part, passengers can choose from a list of options for meal preferences when purchasing a ticket (if relevant). But just because something is available does not mean it’s good.

With that in mind, PAX International set out to discuss the importance of special meals onboard. From vegan or gluten free to Kosher and Halal, the industry understands that a wide variety of good special meal options are essential for building passenger loyalty and increasing satisfaction.

Why does it matter?
When a speciality meal does not meet a passenger’s standards, the unsatisfactory meal is going to be the main memory they leave the flight with. In answer to this, catering companies, airlines and suppliers alike have been working to increase the quality of special meals.

“For airlines, it is vital to cover culinary trends, improve customer satisfaction and therefore their net promotor score (NPS),” says Sebastian Schäfer, Manager Culinary Excellence at LSG.

In a recent discussion with PAX International about the rise of popularity in vegan dishes onboard, he had this to say:

“Despite the fact that more and more people turn vegan and are dependent on this option, you have a growing number of “flexitarians.” It is important to offer them attractive vegan dishes that are appealing from a culinary standpoint — so that they might go for it out of curiosity or because they simply want to try something new.”

But why are vegan meals so popular?

“The trend goes towards putting the ingredients in focus,” Schäfer says. “Back in the past, a lot of vegan meals simply replaced meat with a meat alternative but left the actual idea behind a dish untouched. This is not sufficient anymore. Vegetables prepared with different cooking techniques, in various textures and with a wide variety of taste profiles are trending in the fine dining segment nowadays.”

LSG’s beetroot chocolate cake — fully vegan with a touch of earthy flavour

Schäfer cited Indian curry as a popular meal that can cater to a multitude of palates. “It can be completely vegan, but it is a flavour-rich, full meal that is also brilliant for re-heating in the aircraft galley,” he tells PAX International.

In the special meal business
For Wim Pannekoek of Kragtwijk Finest Food, it is important for passengers to have the option of special meals on board because often the alternative is not eating at all.

“In the case of Kosher meals, a passenger has to rely on the airline and caterer to provide a decent Kosher meal. If it is not available, there is hardly any alternative on board that the passenger can be served,” he says.

“It’s not a pleasure to surviving a long flight on bananas and apples (if available).”

Kragtwijk Finest Food is one company stepping in to help fill that gap. The company provides gluten free and Kosher meals to a number of airlines. All of the company’s products “are sealed by the label of the Rabbinate securing that all products apply to the highest level of kashrut available,” Pannekoek says.

A product shot of a Kragtwij Finest Food gluten-free breakfast

Kragtwijk Finest Food is a family business based in Amstelveen, close to Amsterdam and Schiphol Airport. The company currently partners with airlines such as KLM-AF, Lufthansa, Etihad, Iceland Air and ITA as well as with caterers such as Newrest and dnata.

“As a family business, we feel responsible for future generations. Therefore, we automatically think about the future and the consequences of our choices in every decision we make,” Pannekoek says. This includes decisions that affect all food operations, such as keeping sustainability at the front of mind.

“We have put a lot of effort into our search for packaging alternatives,” he says. “If we can replace packaging with a more sustainable solution, we do so (we replaced plastic single-use trays with high-quality cardboard trays years ago).”

Pannekoek says the company also focuses on reducing food waste in its kitchens and using other ways to reduce a negative impact on the environment, such as driving electric company cars. Pannekoek shares a growing excitement for airline traffic increasing, and by extension the catering business side.

“We are most excited about our new line of gluten-free meals that have been very well excepted by our customers,” he tells PAX International, adding that the company has already successfully expanded its services to other travel markets such as railways and cruise-lines, serving kosher meals to Eurostar and many cruise lines.

Meet M.O.M.
Meal of the Moment (M.O.M.) is a company that provides ready to eat ambient meals. The family-owned business creates products that are specially curated for international travel with a range of instant meals

and snacks with a variety of flavours. To serve, the only direction required is to add hot water.

Prateek & Mugdha Bhagchandka started Meal of the Moment in early 2017 with one simple goal: to make everyday moments magical with food inspired by Mom’s love. Now, the products are flying on five local airlines and one Canadian airline. The company closely works with Optimum Solutions to make this happen.

At M.O.M, vegan or other dietary needs are just as important as taste and appeal. Take the company’s Mac n’ Cheese offering, for example. It is made with almond milk powder and authentic Indian spices.

Meal of the Moment’s vegan mac and cheese

“Mac n’ cheese is nostalgic,” M.O.M. tells PAX International. “People find comfort in foods that remind them of their childhood especially onboard where many people are in a space that may make them nervous or uncomfortable.” Ensuring hearty, tasty vegan options onboard is a way to counteract some of that nervousness.

“We have heard of stories where guests have selected vegan as their special meal and are given a banana wrapped in cellophane...” a company representative shares with PAX International. “We think this is a much better option.”

The company offers instant pasta bowls made from high quality durum wheat, instant rice bowls, crunchy and tasty snacks full of protein, calcium and fibre and several other micronutrients. All products are made in the company’s state of the art manufacturing facility that holds HACCP, FSSC22000, Halal and FDA certifications.

In order to avoid cross contamination, spoilage and other concerns, M.O.M.’s food factory has a stringent allergen policy in place. “Allergens are stored in quarantined areas, handled by specially demarcated utensils, and holding tanks,” a M.O.M. representative explains.

“Each processing and packing machine are regularly tested for any traces of allergens using a swab method with instant results being displayed. The frequency of this test is maximized when producing any special meals such as Vegan. All ingredients used are also tested in external labs at regular intervals for allergen compliance.”

Overall, explains Paul Nanni, Senior Vice President Business Development Optimum Solutions, “Special Meals are prepared under strict Quality Assurance Standards & Procedures (SOPs) that they must follow and are regularly audited by third party auditors (QSAI).” The company’s corporate chefs design in coordination with an airline to develop recipes that meet IATA special meal categories. From there, a production facility produces the special meals.

For M.O.M, an ideal situation would be for Buy on Board options to include great-tasting, shelf stable products that can meet the needs of passengers. Space is limited on board, so a product that ticks the boxes for a passenger looking for a meal that meets dietary restrictions but also tastes great means a wider appeal. More excellent, shelf-stable products mean more happy travellers.

Plus, with vegan options, there is the possibility of reducing cabin waste.

“Depending on the market and airline, some airlines if sourcing from another country, cannot have meat or dairy as part of the ingredients, or they have to dispose of the product when returning to their country,” explains Nita Tomie Director, Product Development & Sales at Optimum Solutions.

“Waste is the number one issue for airlines when serving food. If we can provide products to help solve these issues, then we all win.”

Another way to reduce waste could be utilizing a better organized pre-order system. Such an option can give airlines “the opportunity to offer unique options that are not mass appeal, so it offers an additional layer of guest experience while saving the space on board for mass appeal options,” Nanni says.

On some airlines, passengers can choose many different components of their meal, creating fully bespoke products that cater directly to their preferences.

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