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Here's Takeout Fare for Famished Fliers

A new venture offers food to go for those who get no lift from an airline meal

June 25, 2002|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The old joke about airline food is that it's pretty bad--and there's so little of it!

Richard J. Katz and Alan M. Levin feel the hungry passenger's pain. The former television executives are launching SkyMeals, a food delivery service for travelers that could help eliminate on-board hunger-induced frustration.

The frequent flier who cringes every time a flight attendant asks, "Chicken or pasta?" will be able to go to SkyMeals.com and peruse a menu of breakfast items, generous sandwiches, buffet platters, salads and desserts. Orders must be placed by phone 24 hours before takeoff. A room-temperature meal is delivered to the customer's home or office, packed in foil-lined containers inside a purple and gold SkyMeals shopping bag. Katz and Levin hope to eventually serve multiple cities, but initially, delivery will be available only on L.A.'s Westside. Service is scheduled to begin Monday.

The average price of a SkyMeal is $35 to $40. Levin says, "We're looking to reach a demographic that is used to good food and good restaurants. We don't expect this to only appeal to first-class passengers. People who are content to pick up a Big Mac and fries at the airport won't be our customers. We're looking for the traveler who likes to eat well and can afford to."

Who might that be? The business person whose company won't pay for first- or business-class tickets anymore, but will approve a SkyMeal charged to an expense account. Or someone in a commuter marriage, who flies regularly and can't face another plastic tray filled with cold rolls, limp lettuce, gummy salad dressing and other insults.

There are those who like to leave nothing to chance, including when their next meal will appear. SkyMeals is a control freak's dream. "Each meal is made to order, prepared for you, to your specifications," Katz says. "Having it with you gives you the option of eating a little bit, whenever you're hungry--a little now, and a little later. You don't have to eat when the airline decides to serve you."

Some travelers are already in the habit of bringing along their own food--including gourmet takeout and homemade treats--on flights. Levin sat near a woman in first class recently who had asked the Peninsula Hotel to pack a meal to go (an indulgence she said cost her $66). "I asked her why she brought her own food," Levin says, "and she said she didn't like airline food, even in first class.''

After its launch on the Westside, the first level of expansion will be to the rest of the Los Angeles area. In nine months to a year, Levin and Katz expect to add other cities. Since airport security prevents passengers from carrying knives, the food is pre-cut. Nothing needs to be heated, and the meals are designed with an unrefrigerated shelf life of eight or nine hours.

Jill Ungar, SkyMeals' full-time chef, works out of a kitchen on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. Since Lincoln is a popular route to the airport from the Westside, the company is also offering curbside pickup. Airlines typically spend $2 to $3 per passenger on food. "We're using really fresh ingredients, and we aren't hiding the flavor with lots of mayonnaise and salt," she says.

The concept for SkyMeals was conceived in 1998. Levin and Katz were flying home from a conference in France. Before going to the airport, they hit their favorite Parisian charcuterie and patisseries. Once on board, they unwrapped cheeses and pate, salami, prosciutto, fresh baguettes and chocolate croissants. "Even though we were flying in business class, we preferred fresh food to what the airline was serving. Everyone around us was envious."

If the cheese they bought was fragrant, envy might not have been the only emotion their spread inspired. The SkyMeals founders aren't worried that the smell of Caesar salad with blackened salmon might attract attention. In fact, they hope it will.

"Every day, 62,000 people fly out of LAX," Levin says.

"If every one of them wants a SkyMeal, we'd have a good problem. For starters, we'll be happy selling 100 meals a day. I think we'll far exceed that."

Just how particular, and spoiled, travelers are remains to be seen. For those who really like to be taken care of, SkyMeals will make a $14.95 peanut butter and jelly sandwich for traveling children.

"If people are ordering for themselves, we want to give them the option of having something for their children too," Levin says.

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