Sunday 18 August 2019

How comfort food plan took flight

When people go airborne, health foods take a back seat to comfort. We want the sweet and salty stuff, says Lucinda O'Sullivan

Product specialist: “A fancy title for being a buyer of all things nice,” says Aoife Ryan of Retail in Motion
Product specialist: “A fancy title for being a buyer of all things nice,” says Aoife Ryan of Retail in Motion

Lucinda O'Sullivan

When people get on a plane, they are not interested in eating the health food options, says Aoife Ryan. "They want the comfort food - the crisps, the sweets, the chocolate, the snacks. If someone has chips on a plane, everyone wants them."

Aoife is product specialist with Retail in Motion, a dynamic Irish company which supplies low-cost airlines with, not only technological solutions but food and boutique products. "It's a fancy title for being a buyer of all things nice," says Aoife, just back from the annual TFWA exhibition in Cannes, the world's biggest duty-free and travel fair, where she had 42 meetings over four days with suppliers of tobacco, alcohol, perfume, electronics and jewellery.

Retail in Motion specialises in airlines that sell goods on board - all the stuff you see in the trolleys.

"That means low-cost carriers, not very posh ones where everything is free. Airlines make their money from the food and drink they sell on board. We supply Ryanair, Aer Lingus, the French airline Europe Airpost (who have recently rebranded to ASL). ASL fly charter flights from Paris and five other places across France to all the holiday destinations and in winter they do Santa flights to Lapland and ski holidays.

"I also look after a German airline called Sun Express who do a lot of holiday traffic to Egypt, the Canaries, Turkey and places like that, and it's all 'buy on board'."

Aoife, who is originally from Bray, Co Wicklow, is married to Russell and has lived in Arklow for the past 14 years. When she left school, she worked with a travel agency for four years and saw all the 'quality destinations' such as Santa Ponsa -and once, when she misbehaved, she was sent to Lourdes!

Having qualified in marketing and PR, she then worked with a building company. "It was the time of the boom and we were lovely and busy. It was a really nice builder and they were building apartments left, right and centre, but the crash came, the company went wallop and I was out of work for the guts of a year."

Aoife has always had a great love for food. "My best friend used to ring and say, I have XYZ in the fridge, what am I going to cook? I'd think of a few things and tell her. She'd forget and ring me back, so I started writing it down for her and then I thought I might just start writing it for other people.

"Six years ago, I started doing the blog which led me to what I'm doing now. I went in to cover for a friend, in Retail in Motion, and, on day two, our boss liked what I did and said 'come and stay', creating a role for me.

"He started years ago with Boxerchips crisps. They were made in a box because anything with straight lines fits into an airline trolley without wasted space. Then he started creating technology to allow low-cost airlines to work better and then we started looking after companies like Ryanair, then we expanded into Europe."

Do carriers emanating from different countries want different foods?

"Most airlines would have the same formula - soft drinks, water, hot drinks, salty snacks, sweet snacks. You'll always get on a plane and want a cup of tea or coffee, a can of Coke or a glass of wine, chocolate and crisps, so they'd be the core of any range.

"Fresh food will always be different because different nations and nationalities will want sandwiches with different fillings. We work with sandwich suppliers across Europe to get local ranges. What would be on board for an Italian base would be completely different. For instance, they wouldn't eat a chicken and stuffing sandwich, they would eat sliced mushrooms with ham, or good mozzarella with Parma ham.

"In Spain they love an omelette sandwich - tortilla in a baguette. In France the top seller would be traditional ham and cheese, and after that a fish or vegetarian option. In France the latter would be the lowest, they love their meat.

"For fresh food, it's easier to work with a sandwich supplier who has a chain and can deal with all the bases, they can make the sandwiches to order, they can deliver them out to the bases on a daily or two or three-day basis because they are perishable.

"We have to remember what we need to do is reduce the wastage, because if you throw something out, you're throwing profit down the drain. Our aim is to make as much money for our customers as possible and try and cut their wastage down as much as possible, and that's what we are really good at."

Boutique items include watches, jewellery, perfumes, cosmetics and electronics, and Aoife works with the supplier to build ranges for customers.

"We work to figure out what sells internationally and locally, and find some nice local stuff as well. Some countries only want national stuff, products from their country, whereas in Ireland people also want things they can't get at home, so it has to be creative and a balancing act.

"You can put anything on board, but if it doesn't sell it's no use. We build ranges about seven months in advance, so next week I'll be working on next summer, which starts on April 1. Then you have to start preparing the brochure, returning all the old stuff and getting the new stuff in.

"There's a lot of logistics involved. It's not as simple as saying: 'I'll put that on board'. If you have an airline with 60 bases, 60 sets of products have to be returned and 60 sets of products have to be replaced. That takes about eight weeks, but we have a really good team who do that."

One of Aoife's successes has been her "rather fruity" slice of sponge cake, which they developed in-house under their own label Crumble and Co. This little slice of sweetness now sells over a quarter of a million units a year.

"Ryanair, Sun Express and other customers have taken it and it's gorgeous. I taste tested it on my friends. It's a long-life product. I did the first one at home and then shortlisted a couple of bakeries and the right guys came along.

"We trialled it until we were sick of it but then we got it right. We had to make sure the cake would work in every single atmosphere, from freezing cold in Northern Europe to other, very hot, destinations.

So, the next time you look at a passing airline trolley and see Boxerchips and other goodies, you now know there is a real person putting an awful lot of thought, consideration and time into what's being wheeled up and down the aisle.

Sunday Independent

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