Let’s face it. A lot of people consider airplane food to be one of the most controversial aspects of a flight; and reference it to being boring, bland and laden with calories. Well, I disagree.
I recently had the opportunity to go behind the scenes with my friends at Virgin Atlantic, where I discovered just how the airline develop their on board meals, wines and cocktails, and buddy-up with a variety of brands and suppliers. It was certainly a fun day; and a good thing I went to their HQ in Crawley having skipped breakfast.
I listened to a variety of short presentations from several members of Virgin’s inflight services and food and beverage teams. It’s not all about sampling the delicious food, cocktails and testing the products (ok, maybe I downplayed that statement a bit); But they have to balance the books of providing more than 12 million meals a year to their customers and working out the physical logistics of getting the food to the right aircraft on time.
Virgin Atlantic actually change or “cycle” their menus every three months in Upper Class and Premium Economy; and every six months in Economy. They also try to create a specific offering for each destination. In other words, you could be flying from San Francisco and enjoy one meal, but a completely different option from Los Angeles – catering to the local audience.
So how does it all begin? Every twelve to eighteen months a study is carried out by the airline to define Virgin Atlantic’s vision for the future in terms of in-flight dining. From here a detailed brief is created; which is passed on to Virgin’s suppliers – who then have the task of creating several bespoke options for each dish (such as chicken, beef or fish etc). Most likely only one will make it’s way on board the aircraft after a rigorous “fit to fly” process which consists of trials, internal and external feedback and lot’s of tasting. Unlike other carriers, Virgin actually listen to their customers and suppliers like Gate Gourmet. They work closely alongside each-other to develop a balanced sustainable offering, taking into consideration local, environmental and sustainable conditions.
A great example of listening to customers would be the recent refresh of Virgin’s famed Upper Class meal service. From customer feedback, the airline moved away from a “brasserie-style” offering, to a “fine-dining” experience. Obviously it is very hard to re-create a meal at The Wolsely at 30,000 feet; but the illusion can be replicated through the use of mood lighting (on their new and very stylish 787-9 Dreamliner), and to the way a simple fillet of beef is presented, and individually plated to order – with meticulous attention detail. Cabin crew may have a style guide, but so does the food!
Shortly afterwards, I was whisked away to Miss Rigorous; a mock-up aircraft used for crew training. You may actually recognise the Upper Class section from some of the recent James Bond movies. Pretty cool to say I may have been sitting on the same bar stool as Daniel Craig. Perhaps I should have asked for a Martini at the bar. Shaken, not stirred of course.
Forget the Vermouth, the airline have recently partnered with Funkin Cocktails to offer a variety of glamorous cocktails on board. The brand provide a range of natural and artificial-free purees to restaurants and bars across the world- where simply all you need to do is add the ice and spirit to the mix and voila. Although only one “Funkin mix” is found on board Virgin Atlantic flights at a time, this can be used to create five different cocktails. The raspberry puree is delicious.
I don’t know about you, but my heart always sinks when I hear crew members say to a passenger that they have run out of their first-meal choice. In Upper Class, I learned that provisioning is at 140%, so there is always more than enough. In Premium Economy, this is also over-catered for – and any meals remaining could be used as a buffer should they run short in Economy.
I was able to enjoy a delicious Premium Economy meal as though I was at 30,000 feet before it was time to “step back” into the real world. It came as no surprise that the Chicken Tikka curry was the most popular option. It’s the British way.
Virgin had also arranged for a number of their suppliers to set-up shop in the marketplace; just so a few others and I could have a little chat and taste some of their products. I had to keep telling myself it was a cheat-day, as believe me… I over indulged. A lot.
Also, did you know that Virgin Atlantic were the first airline to become part of the Sustainable Restaurant Association? Since joining the scheme in 2013, the airline created a series of standards which they hope to be fully implemented across their entire in-flight catering by the end of 2016. Additionally, Virgin Atlantic have been a partner with OneWater for the past five years, raising more than £100,000 to change the lives of people through sustainable water programmes across Africa.
Being an innovative brand, Virgin are always looking at new ways to enhance the in-flight experience; and have partnered with the likes of Gu Puds and Tyrrells to offer bespoke savoury and sweet treats on board. In a day and age where we tend to share an allegiance to various brands (whether it’s an airline or a certain coffee chain), it’s fantastic to see Virgin partnering with those who fit in with their vision. I always wondered why I could never find the Key Lime Pie”Mini-Gu” pots in the supermarket. The reason? It is exclusive to Virgin Atlantic. Damn.
New this year, Upper Class passengers can look forward to Champagne from Gardet and movie treats from Salcombe Dairy; whilst if you are travelling in Premium Economy on the airline’s new 787 Dreamliner’s, you’ll be able to enjoy Jo and Sephs popcorn from the neat Wander Wall feature. My favourite flavour must be Salted Caramel. You just can’t beat it.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the Virgin Atlantic’s airline food and beverage offerings; and it certainly did dispel some of the myths for airline food. Our taste-buds are different when cruising at altitude as opposed to being on the ground; so obviously things won’t taste quite the same.
In a world of continuous improvement, it’s great to see Virgin Atlantic always looking to the future and enhancing the food and beverage experience.
Thanks to Virgin Atlantic for a fantastic day (and to some of their lovely crew for the photograph!)