Aug 24, 2021 - Economy

Farm to tray table: Airline menus add local fare

Illustration of white plane wearing a chef's hat at the head of the plane.

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

Your menu options, if you happen to find yourself in the first-class cabin of a Delta flight from Seattle to Boston this fall:

  • Skagit River Farms Polish kielbasa with Beecher’s cauliflower mash, or pan-roasted chicken with fingerling potatoes, Skagit River Farms bacon and Walla Walla caramelized onions in a kimchi butter sauce.

What's happening: Airlines are trying to win back premium customers with better in-flight meals featuring fresh, local fare, a J.D. Power travel analyst tells Axios.

  • Carriers are adding gourmet-sounding seasonal foods and craft beers to entice their customers to be happier — and to pay more.

Flashback: It started with gourmet vendors in airports.

  • "What we’ve seen is that people are more willing to pay a higher price for local food ... like crabcakes in Baltimore, or a moon pie in Kentucky," said Michael Taylor, leader of J.D. Power's travel practice.
  • At my home airport in Detroit, that means Plum Market with Zingerman's famous sandwiches (the crusty bread is amazing), or Grobbel's Gourmet Deli, known for its mouth-watering corned beef.
  • Airlines followed suit, experimenting with premium-cabin meals featuring distinctive flavors inspired by chefs at some of the country's most popular restaurants — a far cry from "the feather or the leather."
  • But then COVID-19 hit. Many airlines stopped serving meals altogether or switched to sealed plastic containers.

Now, they're trying to lure us back with coast-to-coast or trans-ocean menu offerings like:

  • Alaska Airlines: Guajillo chile-lime salad with ancient grains, roasted broccoli and sweet potato with a roasted lemon crema, and miso-marinated cod with sesame garlic farro, sauteed yu choy, bell peppers and shiitake mushrooms in a sesame-miso butter sauce.
  • JetBlue: Build-your-own meal (even in coach!) like roasted chicken thigh over a base of brown rice with herbs, or spiced eggplant over coconut cauliflower quinoa, with sides of mac and cheese and a mixed heirloom tomato salad sourced from Dig Acres in upstate New York.
  • United Airlines: Egg scramble with plant-based chorizo, or grilled chicken breast with orzo and lemon basil pesto — with a chocolate "Pie in the Sky" dessert specially created by Chicago-based Eli's Cheesecake.

Then wash it down with a local craft beer or curated regional wine.

The catch: Sourcing local ingredients for airlines that hop all over the country — or the world — can be tricky.

  • Some airlines aim to reduce the logistical challenge by requiring customers to pre-order their selections.

What to watch: COVID isn't going anywhere — and, with cases rising, the Federal Aviation Administration is likely to extend its mask requirement, currently scheduled to expire Sept. 13.

  • In-flight meals might be tastier, but eating them will remain a challenge.

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