„Think twice, son“, my father said, when confronted with my career aspiration in aviation. I was 15 and living nearby SXF airport (still do). “My late father – your grandfather – used to say ‘People will always have to eat!’”, he added, with that embossed tone in his voice. Some 36 years on, not a bit quick-witted, I shall reply “Yes, they will, even in aeroplanes!”
Aviation nutrition has been taken for granted until quite recently. For a very long time, no one even questioned it, as if it would be an indispensable part of the air transportation, even though at the same time no train or trunk line bus would offer the service, unless you’d pay cash onboard. Very strange it took so long for airlines to transform the former gratis catering into a service available at cost. What is even funnier: data from a number of airlines suggest that only a minority of passengers uses the service with costs, as if that transformation was a gigantic diet jump-starter, or, do passengers take revenge by bringing their home-made sandwich or by having lunch at the airport plaza before flight? A little bit of this, but to the larger extent it is the inapt way in which food and service are promoted and made palatable. Because passengers do have a choice, quality, selection and price will have to be right, even on a long-haul flight.
Think of your favourite home restaurant! What drives your loyalty towards it, every Friday night, in spite of all the other attractions around? You remember the treat, the price was right, you know what to expect. What could the shiny start-up around the corner possibly do in order to bring you around? He will need to attract your attention, ideally that of all senses. Usually, only the visual sense will succeed – a luminous advertising, a door-to-door flyer, an opening campaign. Once you’ve decided you’d give it a try, you still don’t know what to expect when entering the front door. And the latter isn’t a one-way street with a u-turn ban.
The critical moment for any start-up restaurant (just like the airline industy during that transformation) will be the presentation of the menu, at least until the point where the service is widely known and accepted, with some degree of recurrent customer loyalty. It is the fundamental criterion for clients to make a reservation, or, for airline passengers to order and buy in-flight food well ahead of their journey, online or through a travel agency.
A short excursus into the History of Menus: it was the time of The Enlightenment, when the bourgeoisie appeared on the scene. Public restaurants first opened in Paris in the last third of the 18th century. The variety of dishes and courses was larger than one might expect: urbanisation and standardisation helped to eliminate many specialties, some of which reappeared in the recent organic and new age trends. And of course we have learnt not to eat larks or mandrake root anymore. The vast variety of choices required a certain publicity to pass the information and to attract curiosity. The term “menu” derives from the French word “menue = small” and suggests the listed meals are a selection from the wider pool of imaginable meals. Though the early menus weren’t tabularly structured like ours, but rather a masterpiece of contemporary prose and art design. Quite different from today’s listed itemisation, and ideally a compelling narrative.
Here’s a check-list for your next airline menu design:
1. Know who you are and who your clients are. And what they like to eat.
2. Understand the menu’s potential for diversification in an industry known for its acute state of conformity and standardisation. Simple, basic and luric? Or in the gastrosophic style?
3. Define the zeitgeist which should be expressed. Choose from these antipodes: Vibrant or minimalist? Photography or clever illustrations? The symbolism and psychology of colours. Being funny or gentle? Blatant story-telling or underplayed modesty? Simple and unpretentious, or tedious?
4. Make sure your entire offer will be on display. Can customers actually see what their food will look like when ordering?
5. Your menu is a version of your „business card“, looking good! It could be a crucial part of your marketing material.
6. A menu can be so much more than just a boring tabular list of items.
7. Eating is such a multi-sensual delight, try to speak to the senses.
8. Show that the menu was made with a lot of love, and clients will expect you to cook in the same way.
9. Make sure the menu resembles the look and feel that embraces the CI and brand’s principles.
10. You need to serve both objectives: maintain your loyal patrons, draw in new clientele.
11. The aircraft isn’t a restaurant’s equivalent: avoid misinterpretations, quality deviations, disappointment and claims by accepting its limitations.
Any menu is a central asset to generate sales in the world of inflight meals, even if available in digital format only. Without a proper menu and a handy presentation, new clients will not order (and they won’t even know why they didn’t), and some existing customers will tend to forget. For the online version, the inclusion of images will be crucial, the visual sense being the sole addressable sense in the booking process. The ideal menu should have these properties: guiding, selling, realistic, drawing in additional whilst maintaining existing clientele, being more distinguishable.
With the paradigm shift from “Leisure flights need to offer complimentary meals, these travelers fly once per year only and must be feeded!” to “They are used to the low-cost model, by the way, what do you get for free on a bloody train?” at full throttle, it is time to redesign that part of the business, to put it in a safe place to serve its new purpose, ideally linked with a new distribution capability in the world of mobile telecommunications, with “all in one” – flight booking, seat reservation, menu choices, other special services.
“I wrote ‘She’s a Lady’ on the back of a TWA menu, flying back from London after doing Tom Jones’s TV show. Jones’s manager wanted me to write him a song. If I have an idea and I don’t have a pad of paper, I’ll write on whatever is available. What’s the difference? Paper is paper.” (Paul Anka)
“The great thing about McDonald’s is that they have a lot of different things on the menu. I love their salads.” (Beyonce Knowles)