Eating and Dining

Where does the food come from on a plane? Catering isn't just booming at 30,000 feet

The sector catering has been booming for years.  Photo: Fedor Kondratenko © iStockphotoThe sector catering has been booming for years.  Photo: Fedor Kondratenko © iStockphotoWaiter, cook, baker, hair stylist – all professions that are relatively easy to imagine. But what exactly do they mean with the rather clumsy term “Fachmann/-frau für Systemgastronomie” (lit. catering industry specialist)?

The vocation “Catering / food service industry specialist” has been around since 1998 but not many people know much about it. Still, the sector has been booming for years, showing impressive growth rates while the traditional restaurant business suffers from falling revenues.

What is this industry exactly?

An ambitious chef would probably not be able to realize his/her most creative dreams in a catering service kitchen.  Photo: auremar © 123RFCatering is considered an independent commercial sector consisting of both production and service. Its main elements include central management, standardization of work processes, and multiplication. Using a module-based concept, catering guarantees that the meals served to the customer possess the same quality and appearance when they arrive at the table, whether it happens in Munich, Berlin or in a small country town.

An ambitious chef would probably not be able to realize his/her most creative dreams in a catering service kitchen, but anyone who thinks the job is boring would be off the mark. The curriculum includes, among other things, marketing, inventory management, system organization, human resources, and management and supervision of the operation's products and services. Future catering professionals also learn how to run a restaurant franchise on their own during the training period, working at catering companies, hotels, restaurants or fast-food chains in the process.

Not just burgers

There are more large-scale food service operations than many people might think.  Photo: olegbabich © 123RFJonas from Frankfurt is in his second year of the catering specialist program. He works at the world's largest provider of airplane food, LSG Sky Chefs, the food service subsidiary of Lufthansa, a German airline. “What interested me was the combination of modern gastronomy and the system itself,” says the 23-year-old, who graduated from secondary school with good grades and applied for the job due to its diverse range of disciplines. Of course he also gets to try some of the business and first class meals at the “Chef Table”: breast of duck in a chocolate-cherry sauce, filet of beef with potatoes au gratin, or various Indian dishes. Every country has its own food culture that has to be taken into consideration, for example kosher or halal meals for Jews and Muslims, respectively. The random samples always come from the ongoing production run and the quality standards are high. Trainees don't make decisions about flavor of course. Their task is to monitor the meals as a whole. Are the weights and sequences correct on the plate? Is the presentation right? Are the napkins and cutlery OK?

Whether it's Italian, Spanish or “international”, or whether the food is served in an airplane, a cafeteria, a hospital or a petrol station, there are more large-scale food service operations than many people might think. According to the Bundesverband der Systemgastronomie (an association for the industry), revenues in 2011 among the top 60 companies in the sector rose by EUR 451.1 million (a 5.5 percent increase) to a total of EUR 8.72 billion. The major players in the sector include McDonald's, Burger King, LSG Sky Chefs Deutschland, Nordsee Fisch-Spezialitäten, PetitBistro, an Aral company, and even Ikea-Gastronomie. The fast-food chains naturally post the largest share of total turnover, but there is a new trend on the rise, particularly in Germany's large cities: individualized catering services called “fast casual”, with franchises named Vapiano, MoschMosch or Coa that feature a new, lighter culinary experience. Some of these unconventional chains are so successful that they have expanded rapidly into select international markets.

Quality instead of service

The major players in the sector include McDonald's and Burger King.  Photo: kzenon © 123RFA characteristic element of these new chains is what they refer to as “front cooking”, where meals are prepared in front of the guests. It's fast and healthy, with fresh ingredients and fair prices. Dishes are served in an environment that suits the style of the times: no plastic in sight, a Mediterranean flair with marble and slate features, oak floors, wooden tables or even an olive tree in the middle of the restaurant. People sometimes don't even know that they are eating at a “catering operation” location. The resourceful concept banks on quality over service. Guests get their food where the chef is cooking it, but that works well because lunch breaks are short and many of the restaurants eliminate the process of waiting for the check by using chip card systems.

One could say that the future belongs to catering services, and job opportunities are plentiful according to industry experts. Thanks to social media, marketing and advertising costs are minimized for these savvy operations, where word of mouth is more effective among the urban clientele: “cool spot, good food and super nice service staff…” was how one Facebook post described the visit to a popular restaurant in downtown Frankfurt. The big question is whether the person knows that he/she was eating at a catering industry concept restaurant!

Karoline Rebling
is a freelance journalist living in Frankfurt am Main.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
November 2012

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