Behind the scenes at United Airlines’ test kitchen

Last week, the Chicago Tribune published an insightful article focused on a United-Continental merger related item not often reported in such detail – the consideration given to airline meals and galley equipment. Reporter Gregory Karp spent a day at the United Airlines test kitchen in suburban Chicago speaking with chefs, executives and other staff who make the decisions about what we as passengers eat and which items are best suited for onboard preparation and service.

Effective May 1, 2012, we as passengers will be experiencing the new menu, wine and service items under consideration in this article when we travel in First or Business class. According to John Yeng, United’s Director of Product Marketing, “We’re serious about this merger. Part of the reason we’re going through these details is that we want our customers to know that it’s not just merging things together. We’re paying attention.â€

Fortunately, the article hints at the fact that chefs are “trying to emulate Continental’s food, which traditionally received high ratings, compared with United’s food, which usually scored poorly.†I tweeted a picture of my breakfast on United earlier this month noting how good it was for a change and one of my followers mentioned it’s Continental’s influence already being seen.

a plate of food on a tableMy recent domestic dinner flight also was a pleasant surprise with a salmon appetizer and a main dish including gnocchi.

a plate of food on a traySome decisions have already been finalized as to which way to go – the United way or the Continental way. Among them are:

  • Continental’s slimmer, sleeker serving pot for coffee.
  • Continental’s salt shakers vs. packets on United.
  • United’s metal bowls for serving hot fudge and salad dressing.
  • United’s longer, safer oven mitts.
  • Continental’s cloth hot towels vs. United’s paper.
  • United’s custom of serving warmed nuts in a ramekin.

The article goes deeper into the logistics and factors that determined the “winners†in each category, so I’d encourage you to read it to get a behind the scenes look into just how many decisions are made for what many travelers take for granted.


  1. Although the UA breakfasts are often criticized, it looks much better than (CO influenced) breakfast posted above. 😮 Especially the thing that looks like a brownie.. Is that sausage?

  2. Things are improving. What was unfortunate is that a lot of the inflight service took a dive immediately after the merger before recently recovering and in some cases exceeding the prior standards.

    Maybe it was the economy, maybe it was just the idea of a hard reboot and breaking things down to nothing to rebuild them from scratch, but it was annoying.

  3. Great post and I enjoyed the Chicago Trib article. Someday, I’d like to see a Detailed report with pix dealing with how the front end food is prepared and plated in the galley. The web has lots of flight kitchen videos and pix, but virtually nothing about in-flight prep – save one brief video from an AA pilot a few months ago. Someday…

    • @Scottrick: Things definitely are improving food-wise. It’s a “change I like.”
      @Cook: I’d love a tour of one of United’s flight kitchens. Inflight prep from what I’ve noticed is simply turning a dial to heat it up on U.S. carriers. The fresh eggs & bacon I’ve had on Lufthansa, as well as dishes prepared on Asian carriers would be interesting to see in action.

  4. @Darren. Noted. I should have specified “Primarily foreign-flagged international carriers where nearly all of the FC food is plated aboard.” Let’s keep our eyes out for this… Maybe some FAs will contribute! Thanks.

  5. I had that very breakfast last Saturday LAX-MCO (except I got the warm cinnamon roll which was fantastic)and it was, by far, the best First Class breakfast I have ever had. And I always hated morning flights because of the breakfasts served. But if they keep this up I might have to try and upgrade more of my morning trans-con flights instead of the west bound evening ones I usually do.

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