“I just had the best meal on my outbound flight,” said nobody ever. And for good reason. Few travelers know how their body metabolizes additives at 30,000 feet, yet airlines’ salt and sugar-packed meals often leave us irritable, uncomfortable, and lethargic, making jet lag twice as unpleasant. This is one of many things that Annabelle Lawee, founder of Breeze, a new on-demand airport food service offering up nourishing food for the modern traveler, is about to change.
“We want everyone to experience healthy food when they fly—not just the 1 percent who are able to travel first class,” says Lawee, who notes that the aviation industry has struggled with the quality and taste of commercial plane food since it first introduced simple cold fare in the 1920s. Things improved slightly when United Airlines installed the first on-board kitchen, allowing hot meals to be served, but it wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s—considered “the golden age of air travel”—when in-flight service reached its heyday. Economy fliers were served multi-course meals atop white tablecloths along with a selection of French wine, which paved the way for complimentary coach meals in the years that followed. But with airline deregulation in 1978 came massive cutbacks, and commercial aviation morphed into mass transport. Services were unbundled and added fees were layered in to gain more revenue streams. After 9/11, the airline industry took a big financial hit that caused airports to not only re-scramble security systems but also cut domestic in-flight meal services to save cash. “Dining” became reserved for overseas journeys and first-class fliers, and snacks started to incur an extra cost, adding one more aggravation for frenzied fliers. Then came COVID.
Before March this year, when most airlines vastly limited or wholly suspended service of food and drinks to reduce cabin interactions that could spread the virus, aircraft carriers faced several roadblocks while aiming to create feel-good in-flight meals. Dry air inside the cabins suppresses our sense of smell altering how we experience flavor, so food is prepped with up to 30 percent more sugar or salt for each meal—meaning typical economy class fare might consist of anything from chicken floating in cream sauce to beef doused in gravy and overly buttered potatoes. Now, as some domestic carriers begin to bring back refreshments or for-purchase food, passengers are left with salty nibbles like nuts, pretzels, and peanuts (a staple of air travel since the 1980s), with little concern or understanding for how one’s digestive system shuts down at high altitudes. (High salt intake causes bloating and constipation, while processed foods can lead to acidosis—an imbalance in pH levels—which weakens the immune system and causes drowsiness. Sugary snacks can cause a similar type of crash.)
We want everyone to experience healthy food when they fly—not just the 1 percent who are able to travel first class.
Exceptions to the rule are a handful of ritzy airlines like Singapore and Emirates, which are working with local vertical farms to provide farm-to-plane food on outbound international flights. But what about the billions of people in coach across dozens of mainstream airlines who—as daily infections hit record highs in the United States—are wary of the unique risks posed by cabin service? As several airlines resume hot meals for transcontinental and international flights, and as most airport concession stores remain closed, passengers will, once again, be served the kind of reheated food that insiders like Gordon Ramsey—who worked for an airline for 10 years—wouldn’t dream of touching. “I know where this food’s been and where it goes, and how long it took before it got on board,” he told Refinery29 in 2017. But the reality for most of us is that long-haul flights call for at least one meal, and shorter jaunts require nourishing snacks, and in today’s COVID environment, hunting down an organic, low-salt wrap and vitamin-packed green juice feels harder than ever.
Now imagine this: you’re all checked in and finally made it past security without the hassle of snack-filled bags from Whole Foods. After collecting your on-board essentials, you stop at a food cart to pick up your made-to-order avocado toast on sourdough bread with grape tomatoes, flaked salt, cilantro and olive oil drizzle alongside a cold brew. Should you long for something heartier for the haul, you might grab a chicken quinoa jar with a pre-flight power smoothie instead. And off you go to your gate with your locally sourced, just-made meal that’s stored in environmentally-friendly packaging. This is what the future of airport food looks like, thanks to Breeze. Starting with a food-centric pilot launch in LAX’s Delta Terminal 2, founder Lawee’s plans for expansion not only include locations in all hub airports but will address everything from grabbing a coloring book for your four-year-old to sunscreen for your carry-on to a charger for your laptop. “We’re focused on making the entire travel experience more joyful so people can have a stress free, seamless journey,” says Lawee.
Simply said, acquiring fresh, contactless meals for busy travelers is soon to be a total breeze. While Lawee’s pilot program allowed travelers to place their order via the mobile Breeze app, post-COVID, she moved all features to its web online ordering platform so QR codes can be simply scanned for convenience. From 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., underutilized airport space—or a “ghost kitchen”—is where all the food is made fresh, on-demand. This innovative model supports sustainability and small business development at LAX without the need for new construction or infrastructure. While vegan, vegetarian and paleo options are available, in July, the company strategically added mainstream options like turkey melts and grilled cheese to meet the needs of its evolving clientele. In recent weeks, Lawee has added bagels and muffins from LA’s local artisan Rockenwagner bakery to the menu along with their usual La Colombe cold brew to compete with the popular picks at Starbucks—but with Breeze, customers get instant gratification over having to wait in the now-typical 45-minute line. And because Breeze’s menu is completely digital, it’s nimble enough to change according to customer feedback. For instance, guac and chips were recently added due to consumer demand.
Breeze, a Helm portfolio company, was born out of personal need. Lawee’s own Celiac disease made finding healthful gluten-free options a challenge. “I wound up overdosing on almonds and water which I collectively bought for $20 at Hudson News and felt hangry or annoyed when I had to roll into a business meeting shortly after landing,” she says. Travelers with food allergies often struggle the most, as it’s hard to know what practices airport kitchens have about cross-contamination. “If you see your favorite healthy food chain at the airport, it usually bears little resemblance to the actual restaurant that you know and love,” explains Lawee. Meaning, the chopped salad made in a nut-free facility that you order at your favorite chain café might not share the same ingredient integrity at the same concession stand in your nearest airport.
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Aside from navigating the obvious restrictions cast by COVID, Lawee’s biggest challenge is confronting this traditional airport concession model. “We live in this on-demand world where we can get everything with the touch of a button, but in airports, we tend to feel trapped,” explains Lawee. “We have to succumb to meal options we would never normally consume outside the airport.” She was wise to choose LAX as her proof-of-concept destination as their openness and willingness to support a new food platform might just be the pavement she’ll need for success elsewhere. Justin Erbacci, Interim CEO at Los Angeles World Airports, noted that Breeze’s ability to provide Delta passengers with an online food and beverage offering that they can pre-order on their way to the gate or upon arrival “is another great example of how LAX is leveraging innovative digital technologies to improve the guest experience, while also encouraging entrepreneurship and increasing opportunities for local and small businesses.”
Even in this new COVID world, people are still used to getting what they want, when they want it—whether it’s a heart-healthy Mediterranean Veggie Jar or a comforting Smoked Turkey Cheddar Melt for convenient and speedy pick-up—meaning Breeze is perfectly positioned to lead a long-overdue overhaul of the $13 billion airline catering industry. “COVID-19 has provided the opportunity for the travel industry to re-invent itself, shift away from the status quo, and lean towards a more modern, pleasurable and efficient experience with options for everyone,” Lawee maintains. “Now more than ever, the airport terminal should be a stress-free zone with a timely, pleasant, and touch-free food order experience, because traveling during a pandemic is stressful enough.”
Zoe Schaeffer is a writer and former Conde Nast beauty editor based in Los Angeles.