United wants to brand its meals with the halo of chef Charlie Trotter. Chicago culinary legend Trotter passed away, of course, in 2013. So they’re partnering with “alumni chefs of Charlie Trotter’s legendary Chicago restaurant and their culinary peers” instead.
We’ve been down this road before, with the actual Charlie Trotter. From 2007 to 2010 United served Charlie Trotter meals… and they were in my opinion the worst meals United had served up until that point. The Charlie Trotter chicken, lamb, and short ribs were truly bad. The appetizers were, admittedly, better.
Of course the new meals won’t have anything in common with the old ones, other than the Trotter connection-ish.
Here they’re working with a variety of chefs who trained under Trotter — and like all such celebrity chef endeavors at airlines, it’s the ideas that come from this group working closely with the airline’s own in-house culinary team which is experienced dealing with the challenges of delivery meals produced in large quantity, delivered to aircraft, prepared with limited resources in a confined space, and served in a pressurized cabin environment.
It’s the ideas, and the willingness to lend a name and reputation to the meals, that signals at a minimum an attention to and attempt at quality. As the original Trotter partnership in my view demonstrates, we have to wait for the execution to see how this actually plays out, though in speaking to United this afternoon about it they promised innovation that “will be noticeable, focusing on the cutting edge in meal service.”
Back in the 90s United had Jacques Pepin meals in premium cabins (they later replaced him with Gerry Gulli) and even chef-branded meals in economy (Sheila Lukins). That didn’t make the United economy meals good but it was still an investment. The Trotter Project will be a part of United’s Buy on Board.
The rollout will be:
- Summer 2015: the fresh component (“Bistro on Board”) of economy buy on board
- Fall 2015: premium cabin p.s. service (New York JFK – Los Angeles/San Francisco) meals
- Next year: international business class meals (which encompasses Global First as well)
When a chef lends their name to an airport project or an airline project you know they are trading on reputation and accepting lower quality. Nonetheless, you can do better than what you would otherwise get in-airport or inflight. As I wrote about the Danny Meyer Shake Shack IPO,
you probably want to eat Blue Smoke barbecue on a plane (because it’s better than what Delta would otherwise serve you) but you may not want to eat it in the restaurant.
My rule of thumb is the airline usually improves, and the chef declines through these arrangements. There’s a good chance this signals an improvement in onboard meal service, although there’s no guarantee. It clearly demonstrates United is trying to elevate their meal service.