American Airlines Launches New James Beard Foundation Partnership

Passengers complain that they aren’t served food anymore in coach most of the time. When I first started traveling for business passengers complained that they were served food. Because airline food was a joke. 30 years ago United actually had a celebrity chef branding their economy meals. That’s a far cry from where we are now.

Each Airline Goes Their Own Direction With Soft Product

U.S. airlines aren’t going to match the meals offered by the best airlines in the world.

Etihad Salmon Biryani

They won’t invest as much in food, and they don’t pay attention to the details of presentation in the same way (or have crew that consistently will). However they can make their offerings better.

As the economy has remained strong for a decade, and demand for air travel strong, we’ve seen more investment in soft product.

Delta has even introduced hot towels and new meal service in coach. United’s business class soft product peaked with the introduction of Polaris three years ago and has seen nothing but cuts since.

American isn’t improving coach – their long distance narrowbodies aren’t even getting ovens in the back of the plane – but they’ve been making investments in business class (though, it seems, not so much in first). The lack of investment in coach – where most passengers, even international business class customers, sit most of the time – has dinged the carrier’s reputation and means most customers don’t expect their business product to be as good as it is (and hurts their ability to earn a revenue premium).

American’s New International Premium Cabin Meal Service Announcement

American Airlines just announced a new partnership with the James Beard Foundation.

American Airlines is joining forces with one of the most powerful voices in the culinary industry, the James Beard Foundation. The exclusive multiyear partnership designating American as the official airline partner of the James Beard Foundation will be brought to life on menus designed by James Beard Foundation’s portfolio of established and up-and-coming chefs.

The partnership with the James Beard Foundation offers American customers a world-class culinary experience as part of American’s investment in enhancing the premium experience for customers throughout their travel journey. What’s more, it introduces a roster of culinary professionals who care about making the food world more delicious, diverse and sustainable for all.

The first chef in the rotation is former Top Chef Sarah Grueneberg of Monteverde in Chicago whose meal items “will include an appetizer, pasta entrée and dessert in Flagship First Dining, a salad in the Flagship Lounge, and a pasta entrée onboard.”

Starting December 3 there will be new lounge items:

Flagship First Dining

  • Grilled Roman-style Artichokes: black truffle, fontina fonduta, fresh lemon
  • Mushroom Bolognese: fusilli pasta, cremini and porcini mushrooms, peas, carrots, Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Dark Chocolate Budino: candied citrus, mandarin olive oil, feuilletine chocolate crunch, fresh whipped cream

Mushroom Bolognese, credit: American Airlines

Flagship Lounge

  • Tuscan Kale Salad: beets, apples, goat cheese, spiced sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seed medley, tahini dressing

Tuscan Kale Salad, credit: American Airlines

Starting December 11 there will be new on board items in first and business class between the US and both Europe and South America and on New York JFK – Los Angeles and San Francisco premium transcons.

  • Artichoke Ravioli: blistered cherry tomato sauce, green olive pistachio pesto
  • Spinach and Ricotta Rotolo Pasta: pomodoro sauce, basil pesto, pine nuts

Artichoke Ravioli, credit: American Airlines

It disturbs me though that they’re highlighting the same meals on transcons as long haul and in both business and first.

The Flagship First Dining bolognese looks quite good. The on board ravioli less so to me. And notably there’s only a handful of items being presented through the partnership at this points.

Celebrity Chef Collaborations Are All About Signaling

It’s tempting to say that a celebrity chef is meaningless for an airline, no one cares whose name is attached to the food they care how it tastes and food in premium cabins may matter less than the seat in any case.

However customers don’t taste test meals in advance. They don’t know how good the meal will be before they buy their ticket.

Paying a name chef to associate with the airline meals is a way to announce the airline cares about its food. And if consumers believe the name chef cares about their reputation at all, they won’t put their name on the food unless it meets certain standards. It’s also not very expensive for an airline to rent the chef’s name relative to the total cost of the meals provided.

A celebrity chef doesn’t guarantee a good meal, in fact if a chef is putting their names on an airline meal you should downgrade your estimation of the chef. It means they’re more interested in the revenue stream from branding than maintaining quality for the simple reason that they cannot possibly replicate the restaurant quality of their means in the air, heated in an airplane galley, and plated by US airline flight attendants.

I revised my estimate of Danny Meyer downward when he opened Shake Shake at JFK and Delta started offering Blue Smoke barbecue. It was a signal that Delta’s terminal, and flights, were going to have better food while expecting Danny Meyer’s restaurants would decline.

An airline licensing the chef’s name is trying to make a claim, at least, that they care more about the food — or more than they used to — and there seems to be a weak causal link between that and increased catering investment rather than trading off with that investment – spending on a celebrity chef isn’t usually taking away money that would otherwise go into the food.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Everything announced appears vegetarian, which is cool. Ravioli will be pulverized by the time it hits the tray

  2. “Paying a name chef to associate with the airline meals is a way to announce the airline cares about its food.”

    I’d be more impressed if they simply said “we are catered by DO & CO, purveyors of catering to TK, AT and LH.

  3. Ha!

    I’ve seen AA’s attempts at food service in F/J and good luck with this.

    While this all sounds good on paper, there’s NO WAY all of AA’s inflight crews will be prepping and serving these meals *with the required care* needed to have these meals look like any of their pictures. No chance.

    The AA inflight crews are about as lackadaisical and indifferent as a Frontier Air crew. And I’m sorry to insult the Frontier Air staff.

  4. Does every dish served on an airplane have to be drowning in cheese? I know 99% of the world loves cheese, but for those that don’t, we really don’t.

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