When life gives you lemons, the old saying goes, make lemonade. Perhaps no one in the aviation industry is taking that more to heart than Air North.
COVID-19 has dealt a lot of lemons to the world’s airlines in recent weeks. But when they got their bushel, Air North found a way to keep people employed and get much-needed nutrition to people living in its home base of Whitehorse, Yukon.
Delivery. More specifically, home delivery of meals prepared in the airline’s flight kitchen.
The idea is the brainchild of Air North Head Chef, Michael Bock.
“Knowing that we weren’t going to be supplying catering any longer for an indefinite amount of time, I had to lay off my kitchen staff,” he said in an interview with Western Aviation News. He went home that night and pondered ways to keep the kitchen going.
“I thought ‘you know, what about a little delivery service?’ We could make meals and deliver to people’s homes.”
That was Friday, Monday he made his pitch to senior management. “I said why don’t we try this?”
Air North is unusual among airlines in that it still offers a full meal on many flights created in its own kitchen – a practice long since abandoned by the world’s largest carriers.
It took management 10 minutes to decide. In 10 days, they would take on the challenge of delivering airline food – that oft-derided staple of flights of yesteryear – to homes and businesses across Whitehorse.
“Within the first 10 minutes we had 10 orders come through,” said Bock, adding the most common request has been for the airline’s famous chocolate chip cookies. (Hint, they come free with each delivery.)
At a time when the Canadian aviation industry has shed more than 45,000 jobs, Bock has brought back seven of his staff to cook the meals and run the delivery operation.
“We’re not going to get rich off of it, but we’re definitely going to be able to supply something that’s definitely needed in our community,” said Bock.
Meals with meat are priced at $9, vegetarian meals cost $8 – a steal in a region where COVID-19 has made finding some basic staples a challenge.
“One of my inspirations was I went to the grocery store and I went to buy ground burger and there was nothing left at all in the grocery store,” said Bock. “I thought to myself there’s gotta be a way we can supply meals to people and get some people working that I work with and offer a service that’s probably going to be very needed here in Whitehorse.”
This week’s menu includes cabbage rolls, lasagna, meatloaf with veggies, and Thai vegetable curry. Bock hopes to add another 10 items to the menu in the next couple of weeks.
“It’s a sad moment in history,” said Debra Ryan, Air North’s Manager of Strategic Planning and Alliances. “But with every sad moment there’s opportunity.”
For the Air North kitchen crew, that opportunity knocking.
Key markets for their meal delivery service include people confined to their homes, people who have to work, and truckers who keep vital supply lines moving in Canada’s sparsely-populated North.
Ryan is more than a manager, she’s a fan, having already bought five meals seconds after they hit the market.
“We in the Yukon rely on Air North air cargo for things that come rush,” she said, “but the truck drivers bring in the food, and they’re having a hard time getting anywhere to eat, so we’re reaching out to the truck drivers and doing deliveries for them.”
Ryan said community response has been overwhelming in the short time since the service was launched Tuesday afternoon, with requests coming from far-flung communities across the Yukon.
“What more could you ask for?” she said. “We’re all trying to support our communities, support our employees, and more than anything just do the right thing.”
Bock hopes to keep the kitchen running for as long as the pandemic lasts. Beyond that, it will be a challenge. Bock notes the kitchen goes full-out in the summer just to keep Air North’s passengers feed.
“It’s something that would be good to keep going,” said Bock, “it may just be a bit of a challenge during peak season.”
The website went public today, first deliveries are planned Wednesday.