In-flight delight from Manila

If you ever used Manila Ninoy Aquino airport during the past six years, there is a good possibility Tomas Jämtander took care of your in-flight meal.
     As head of operations at the leading Filipino catering kitchen MECS he is responsible for feeding several thousands airline passengers every day.
     And Karlstad-born Tomas Jämtander has a solid track record in the trade of providing lots of discerning people with the right dishes.
     A list of diners that includes hospital patients and school kids in Stockholm, royalties like the Sultan of Brunei and VIPs such as the President of Kazakhstan.
     What made you end up with this job?
     ”It’s a long story. I have been in this business for 20 years, half of that with SAS Service Partner, SSP. Then 1984-1986 in Saudi Arabia where I became attracted to the industry and the international arena.”
     At SSP’s, which later became Eurest, kitchen in the Stockholm suburb Arninge he supervised food preparation and deliveries to staff and patients at Danderyd hospital, to most schools in the Stockholm area as well as restaurants, daycare centers, homes for elderly and fast food for the supermarket chain ICA.
     A short stint as head of catering for the State Railways of Sweden kitchens in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö followed before he 1998 was asked if he wanted to return to his former employer Eurest as GM for their catering kitchen in Manila.
     “A bit difficult to quit the current job, which I got after a long recruitment process and only a short time working with the company,” says Tomas Jämtander.“But it was easy to follow my heart and return to airline catering and the international environment. That my wife Yolanda is from Manila and several holiday trips had gone that way made it easier to take the decision. We knew pretty well what we went for.“
     So off they went together with their two sons, now aged eight and twelve. Yolanda works as an immigration officer at the Swedish embassy in Manila in downtown Manila while Tomas is based where his customers come and go, at the Manila Ninoy Aquino airport as General Manager and Chief Operating Officer of MacroAsia-Eurest Catering Services, MECS.
     What are the largest challenges in this industry and how do you deal with them?
     “Air travel with business and tourism is generally speaking sensitive to variations in the economic climate and also sensitive to changes in the world around them.”
     Air travel recovered fairly well after the Asian crisis 1997. But turbulence returned with the 9/11 terror act 2001 and then again by SARS in 2003.
SARS hit Asia hard and all of MECS’s major regional clients felt the impact: Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines and Air Macau.
     “For all these reasons it is vital for us to have a flexible work force with a loyal and competent base. In general 60 percent of the employees are full timers and the rest contracted in other ways.”
     Information is shared generously to all staff in MECS in order to create understanding and loyalty, he adds. Competition is very tough in the industry, and locally, with three kitchens in Manila, all having some overcapacity.
     “So it is key to be efficient. In scheduling, to have good purchasing contracts, and a strong sense of cost efficiency and full commitment from all key managers.”
     How do you safeguard MECS against air travel business cycles?
     “During the past year we developed a product line aimed at cafés; sandwiches, pastry and light dishes.”
     Recently MECS clinched an exclusive rights deal with Gloria Jeans´ Coffee, a competitor to Starbucks and Seattle’s Best. And Gloria Jeans´ is an upstart in Manila which makes it extra interesting to grow with them for MECS.
     “But we don’t view us, and are not, as a party caterer. We look for regular and recurrent volumes. Adapting to events now and then cost too much in terms of breaks and irregularities compared with what you can make of it.”
     Tell us about an assignment you consider a challenge over the ordinary and more fun than usual to take on.
     “It was in the Manila startup phase 1998. I had been here a month when the then only competitor went on strike and its carriers lost, with a few days notice, their catering supplier. In a mere three-four days we increased our output from 400 to 4000 meals a day, or from serving two airlines to handle ten carriers.”
     A great opening but at the same time a terrific challenge to cope with. MECS’ kitchen was not completely built up and lacked staff and experience as well.
But no other alternatives except full speed ahead existed.
     “We worked twenty hour days, borrowed experts from our partners in Spain (Eurest) and Singapore (SATS),” says Tomas Jämtander.
     MECS was transformed to a United Nations with airline task forces from all over the world. And when the strike ended Tomas Jämtander kept most of the emergency customers MECS helped during the critical period.
     How do you create a new menu for a carrier. What are the most important issues? On average, how long is an airline menu in force before the carrier changes?
     “The most successful airlines, for example Emirates and Singapore Airlines, change menus every month while others may roll three-four menus for years and just swap them between months,” says Tomas Jämtander.
     “Our customers, the most renowned airlines in the world, know what they want. They have own in-flight departments with service on board experts, entertainment specialists and so on. We are however often asked on the sideline to come up with own menu proposals as we are supposed to know local culinary specialties as well as costs better than a central in-flight department at a head office.”
     Catering to VIP flights takes special knowledge. It is different, challenging and stimulating.
     “Usually that gives my chefs an opportunity to create freely without budget restrictions. And almost all times they are appreciated. Like recently when the Sultan of Brunei and Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister, at separate occasions, were on state visits to the Philippines and MECS was honored with the task to deliver all food and beverages.”
     MECS has a halal certificate. How big is halal food within catering and what does it mean for your company in size and turnover?
     “Halal food becomes a more and more important part of global food supply. In our company too, is our distinctly separated production line for halal a critical factor and competitive advantage.”
     So big is halal that it stands for forty percent of MECS´ volume, delivered to customers like Emirates, Saudia, Qatar Airways and Pakistan International.
     “We have invested a lot of time in project groups and interior modifications to achieve halal certification which is a rigorous process with revisions from the local authority, the Office of Muslim Affairs. And we are extremely satisfied to be the first halal certified food manufacturer in the Philippines. It happened about half a year ago.“
     This year has begun fairly well for the Asian airline industry. Tomas Jämtander´s business goals are to keep the current customers and add two new ones to the list.
     “And we will increase our contribution per sold meal. Mostly by becoming more efficient in purchasing, strive for coordinated menus leading to increased volume purchase and get better deals with suppliers.”
     The emergence of low cost, no frills, airlines is the most important current trend in the global airline industry, believes Tomas Jämtander. And free on board food is one item the true no frills airline scraps. Hungry passengers must pay for in-flight meals.
     “Airline catering is therefore entering a period of transition where the risk is transferred from the carrier to the caterer,” explains Tomas Jämtander.
     Traditional flight kitchens are also becoming like assembly units where most work is outsourced. Kitchen cooking is thus disappearing to a high degree. This trend is particularly obvious in countries with high staff costs and high staff turnover.
     “In Asia with its relatively long flights and low staff costs have these trends not yet made a full impact and catering units are still working traditionally. But this is not saying low cost is not coming to Asia or not present here. A caterer has to rethink to stay in the market,” ends Tomas Jämtander.

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