Last week you may have seen our interview with the Brand Alliances team, who are responsible for selecting all the different brands that we partner with across the airline.
Once we’ve decided to work with a particular brand, there’s a whole lot of beavering away behind the scenes before any product is ready to be unveiled to our passengers, and when any tasty treats and scrumptious new desserts are on the table, it’s our Food Development team who lead the way.
Two key members of this team are Andrew Day and Sophie Uys, who’ve recently been working on developing our new range of heavenly chocolate desserts including the Gü Choc Banoffee Pots and Uglies Chocolate Caramel puds from luxury Irish chocolatier Lily O’Brien’s. A job where you get to eat chocolate for ‘research’? We want to know what that’s all about…
Can you tell us a little about your background and your role in food development at Virgin Atlantic?
Andy: I’ve been in the food industry for 30 years and I’m the 3rd generation of my family to have followed this path. I’m a qualified chef by trade, and after ten years of working in restaurants and hotels I moved into the airline industry (including 13 years at a certain other British airline). I worked as a pastry chef in their flight kitchen, moving on to food development and finally I looked after food planning and menu development.
Eight years ago I joined Virgin in a similar role, and during this time I’ve worked with our global supplier in the development of onboard food and drinks. I’ve worked on the introduction of new meal services and product launches, new concepts such as crew food, and introduced some exciting foods, menus and brands on board.
Sophie: I’ve always had a passion for food and have been in the industry for about ten years. I studied Culinary Arts Management and went on to work as a pastry chef and chocolatier for William Curley before moving to The Chocolate Society, where I had the opportunity to work in new product development.
I joined Virgin Atlantic last year as a quality assessor so I spend a lot of time in the catering units, and I’ve also been heavily involved in food and drink development which has been a fantastic opportunity to work with our suppliers on new products and menus.
What kind of research do you do before launching a new product?
Andy:We gather research from a number of sources, including passenger feedback, crew, and from our competitors and catering suppliers. Some product changes require onboard flight testing, and with others there may be different concerns around packing constraints and so on, which can be resolved on the ground.
We look at the current product and see if there are any potential issues or areas for improvement. From there we issue a brief that outlines any changes needed, our objectives, any limitations we might have, and what we want to see as the end result. These briefs help us internally as a food development team and are also issued to our suppliers and the potential brands that we’re keen to work with.
Sophie: I carry out weekly product checks on current menus, and I also read a considerable amount of feedback from crew and passengers. As part of the development process, I’ll use this information to identify areas for improvement, and highlight any potential issues with any new products we’re reviewing.
Why have we introduced new dessert ranges at this time?
Sophie: As part of the menu development process we’re always keen to find new, up and coming brands who have the same values as us. We like to keep the menus fresh and change the dessert flavours in line with our main menu cycles, which allows us to be seasonal and make sure we’re offering variety for our frequent flyers. It also keeps the market aware that we’re open to new ideas.
How do you work with brands like Gu and Lily O’Briens to get the products ready to go onboard?
Sophie: For the new Gu and Lily’s desserts we were required to sample numerous flavours and dessert ideas! Then we worked together with our UK Catering supplier on the final product selection.
Andy: We work directly with brands to fine tune flavours, packaging and any labelling or promotional activity that we feel adds value. With Gu, for instance, we’ve had bespoke flavours made just for Virgin Atlantic, and we’ve run competitions to win holidays to the Caribbean and so on.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Andy: Working with food, being creative and inspiring chefs and suppliers around the world to create simple but great tasting food. Sometimes this involves travel, which opens your eyes to a whole world of food, and the cultures that influence it. It can’t be that bad if I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years!
Sophie: I really enjoy building relationships and working with our global suppliers on a one to one basis and of course, the travelling is a highlight which allows us to experience the food we select as our passengers would.
To experience one of our fantastic new desserts, book a flight with us at www.virginatlantic.com. Gu’s delicious Choc Banoffee pot is offered in our economy cabin on all our routes from London Heathrow, and our Uglies puds can be wolfed down on all our flights from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow.