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TRAY TABLES BY TODD

If you want visibility in New York City, you can’t do much better than the corner Delta Air Lines leased for SKY360°: 101 W. 57thSt., at Sixth Ave. And Delta, recently emerged from bankruptcy, is looking to increase its visibility among business travelers, who fly more frequently than casual airline patrons and typically pay more for their tickets when they do. Amenities matter a lot to this market segment, with food—particularly well-prepared, good-tasting food—topping the list. First-class passengers eat well on every airline, but Delta is also hoping to cash in on a celebrity chef connection by making items “designed by” Todd English available for purchase back in coach.

Delta shows off the full range of its food offerings at its temporary lounge, SKY360°. Visitors can opt for first class fare designed by Delta’s “BusinessElite Celebrity Chef” Michelle Bernstein. She’s been creating menus for Delta’s international customers since 2006, and her food will now also be served on long-haul domestic flights. Most of it consists of straightforward items (“braised short ribs served with beef sauce, mashed potatoes and Brussel sprouts”), but some is imaginative (“Grilled chicken breast ’Ras el Hanour’ topped with yogurt sauce, served with pearl couscous with leeks & olives and sauteed zucchini”). Tasty stuff, but you have to be in first or business class to get it, and those tickets don’t come cheap.

So what’s there to eat for everybody else?

That’s where English comes in. His food-for-purchase menu consists of coach meals that sell for $7-$9.

“This is an opportunity for us to showcase the new Delta and to provide our customers with a Todd English experience in the air,” says Delta’s Andy McDill. “It was a challenge for Todd to create a menu that would stand up to 30,000 feet. But airline food doesn’t have to taste like airline food,” Dill adds.

A challenge indeed. While Bernstein’s food for first class and business class is heated on board before being served to passengers, English’s items are not. Airline feeding logistics require that it be assembled beforehand and sit around for hours before it reaches the passenger. English says designing food for this market is a lot like planning a picnic, with the added requirement that every item has to fit into Delta’s serving trays.

Here’s what English came up with: smoked salmon and egg salad sandwiches; roast beef steak Cobb sandwiches; chicken and avocado wraps; beet, walnut, manchego and spinach salads; and Olives’ hummus, based on the recipe from English’s flagship restaurant of the same name. Additional items include a Mediterranean salad with grilled shrimp; chilled black olive spaghetti; cheddar-turkey bacon-apple butter croissants; and Nutter Butter sandwiches.

Delta will phase in English’s fare gradually, beginning next month on flights of 2,000 miles (four hours) or more within the contiguous United States. In the spring, most flights of 750 miles or more will also offer this service. The airline says it will still provide complimentary snacks on all flights of 250 miles or more systemwide. But if you want a Todd English item, you’ll have to bring cash.

Will they be worth it? You can find out by dropping by SKY360°. Delta is inviting its elite frequent fliers and corporate travel honchos in for a meal, but is set up to accommodate walk-ins and other curious eaters. They expect between 300 and 1,000 people to show up to sample the full-range of fare on Wednesdays. Other days, non-invitees get to sit in the snazzy business class seats that fill the dining area, but only get to sip on Cokes and coffee.

Delta is also upgrading its beverage program by offering signature cocktails concocted by nightlife impresario Rande Gerber of the Gerber Group. He founded The Whiskey 15 years ago and has developed hotel bars, lounges and restaurants across the country. For Delta, Gerber has come up with three signature cocktails that are personally mixed by Delta flight attendants who have been specially trained by mixologists from the Gerber Group.

Right now, Delta customers can order the “Big Apple” (Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Stirring Apple Martini mix and Cran-Apple Juice); the “Amarula Wake-up” (Amarula served with coffee); and the “Caipirosca” (Finlandia Vodka, served with Stirrings Caipirosca mix). These drinks are free to domestic first class and business travelers, and international coach travelers get one free during the main in-flight meal service. Coach class passengers get them for $5.

What’s interesting here is that Delta, looking to become more competitive after its bout with bankruptcy, thinks that offering celebrity chef-level food and mixologist-style drinks will go a long way in helping the airline reach that goal. Consider it more evidence why full-service operators should do everything they can to give their restaurant brand and their personal brand as much exposure as possible. The number of companies and industries who see synergies from partnering with people who are stars in the food business just continues to grow. Be ready to cash in when one comes your way.

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