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Elevated Dining

Heather Sayers admits it takes a lot of workers—and a whole lot of cooler space—to keep customers satisfied

Author A. Averyl Re

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Heather Sayers likes to keep things moving. She’s a supervisor at United’s Chelsea Food Services Kitchen in Houston, where she oversees a staff of 13 in the data management department, which directs all food service that goes onto each flight. “I just came from the Transportation Department, where I oversaw teams that went out and catered planes,” she explains. “There, I saw the end result. Now, I get to learn the beginning of it.

“Our menu designers and chefs put together the menus. They provide the recipe and the ingredients. We get the master schedule and break out what’s on the menu with our vendors in terms of how much we need to order. We do this half a month ahead of when we need to cater.”

George Bush Intercontinental Airport is one of United’s largest hubs, with domestic and international service and each flight requiring something different from Sayers and her colleagues. “It takes a lot of people to get this done,” Sayers says. “It’s definitely not a one-person job. We have 800 to 850 employees. Our first drivers leave the dock at 5 in the morning, and the last driver doesn’t come back until after midnight. Somebody’s here doing something all the time.”

Not that customers usually see any of those workers. “We try to be as stealthy as possible,” Sayers says. “We want to get on and off without interfering with boarding. We work early so flight attendants have time to make sure they’re not missing anything.”

Home base for those employees is a 120,000-square-foot building that has 23,000 square feet kept at a chilly 40 degrees, along with 4,080 square feet of freezer space. From that vast space comes food—lots of it. “In February, we catered 15,651 flights—meals, beverages, whatever,” she says. “At least 16 widebody international flights a day, with another five or six going domestic. And we do a lot of it in-house, such as fresh Bistro on Board—the Asian salad, protein boxes, any fresh food.”

According to Sayers, Houston is already onboard with the airline’s latest offerings, which include gluten-free menu choices, Greek yogurt and expanded premium wine service. “Our menu designers are very good at knowing what customers want,” she says.

Food Services annually loads 55 million pounds of ice, 22 million liters of water, 44 million cans of soda, 1.2 million premium cabin bottles of wine and 10 million quarts of orange juice. “We touch every airplane that comes in here. There’s not a plane that comes in that we don’t go up to and at least give them ice or something.”

And it is not just what goes onto planes that concerns the Food Service crew. “Usually when a plane comes in, [all the equipment] gets taken off and brought back to the kitchen to get washed,” Sayers explains. “Especially with the overnighters.” In addition, they pull a lot of trash. In February, at Houston alone they recycled 8.99 tons of aluminum, 28.67 tons of cardboard and 10.25 tons of paper.

Sayers has seen a lot in her time with the airline. She has helped two kitchens recover from hurricanes—Houston after Ike and Newark after Sandy. She moved from one position to another, taking in every aspect of food production, from making breakfast baskets to driving a catering truck—showing a kind of determination that’s surprising for a woman who never anticipated taking this
career path.

After completing her degree in Sports Management at Ohio’s Bowling Green University, Sayers was unable to find a job in her field. A friend of her father’s suggested Chelsea as a temporary position, and it turned out that the stopgap job offered her quite an education. “It was interesting, and they were willing to teach me new stuff,” she says. “I wanted to learn what they would teach me.” Twelve years later, she still does.

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