By S. Clayton Moore
Two brothers who grew up in the restaurant industry are changing the face of business aviation catering. Joseph and John Celentano, the founders of Rudy’s Inflight Catering and its companion business, Aviation Services Network, are working hard to provide some of the best catering services available in the skies above, and are changing the catering model for companies flying aircraft coast-to-coast.
Top flight food and delivery
The family’s roots in the food industry run deep. In 1976, the Celentano brothers’ father, Sal, opened Rudy’s, a family restaurant in Hackensack, N.J. The two boys grew up working for their father and his brother, Rudy.
“It was very interesting,” Joe Celentano said. “We certainly gained an appreciation not only for food, but also for the preparation and logistics that go into getting it ready.”
The brothers graduated from New York University in the early 1980s, Joe with a major in political science and English, and John with a degree in finance. By that time, the aviation crowd frequenting their father’s restaurant encouraged the Celentanos to provide boxed meals for their aircraft passengers. It wasn’t in the cards for Sal and Rudy, but Joe and John were thrilled with the suggestion.
“We decided to pick up the idea, and to really expand on it,” Celentano said.
The brothers worked from the back of the restaurant for about five years, serving about 10 clients per day. By 1988, business had grown to the point that they were able to open their own 6,000-square-foot facility in South Hackensack.
Ten years went by, and in 1998, Rudy’s Inflight Catering moved to a 17,000-square-foot facility less than two miles from Teterboro Airport, which is one of the busiest general aviation airports in the country. Today, that small catering company has expanded to include two satellite facilities, a 5,800-square-foot operation in Chantilly, Va., and a 3,800-square-foot facility in White Plains, N.Y.
Over the years, the brothers have learned the hard way that aviation catering is radically different than the business of serving spaghetti at the original Rudy’s.
“Catering is such a different animal than running a restaurant, because we truly operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Celentano explained. “Food is an important part of it, but packaging and delivering these meals is equally important. You can make the best food in the world, but if you can’t package it the right way and deliver it to the airplane on time, it doesn’t matter what you’re serving.”
Each brother has found his own niche in the business. John’s main function is managing the logistics of each location, including scheduling, ordering and personnel. Joe represents much of the public face of the company, handling outside sales and conventions, as well as dealing with the operations of its sister company, Aviation Services Network.
“John and I have very divided responsibilities,” said Celentano. “His strengths are my weaknesses, and vice versa. We get to do a lot of different things, which is great. We just can’t seem to sit still. Every day has a tremendous amount of diversity in the areas that we handle, and that really is a good thing.”
Clients can select meals from Rudy’s huge set menu, which ranges from a classic tuna sandwich to veal Marsala, but many of their offerings depend on the daily needs of their clients. To that end, customer service at Rudy’s recalls the same values that drove the original Rudy’s restaurant: what a customer wants, he gets.
“So much of what we prepare on a daily basis doesn’t come from the menu,” Celentano said. “We prepare whatever the customer wants. We have an agreement with a local sushi restaurant. We prepare ethnic food. Our job is to do what our customers ask us to do. When someone gets in the back of an airplane, they want an experience that is unique.”
The meal requests serviced by Rudy’s staff do have patterns, though. While much of the fashionable high-protein diets are gone, the general trend toward nourishing and wholesome meals remains.
“People are eating very healthy meals right now,” Celentano observed. “A lot of our meals consist of fruit, vegetables and other whole foods, as well as organic foods and fresh juices. You’re just not seeing Beef Wellington anymore. The craziness of the past is gone. Baby boomers are coming of age and they’re very aware of what they’re putting in their bodies.”
Rudy’s Inflight is also unique in that the company services business aircraft almost exclusively. While the service level remains high, most of their customers don’t receive movie-star treatment. That is a misconception Celentano sees in the marketplace.
“People talk about corporate aircraft and think it must be all caviar and champagne,” he said. “That impression couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s not the stereotypical extravagance that people imagine.”
Today, Rudy’s provides meals for an average of 400 flights per day. Its primary location at Teterboro serves at least 350 flight segments per day. White Plains serves about 85 and the new Chantilly location, which opened in 2005 to serve the metro Washington, D.C. airports, serves about 50. The newest location has been an interesting change for Rudy’s. Unique differences exist between the New York and D.C. markets.
“It seems to follow a different pattern so far,” Celentano said of his Chantilly clients. “It’s a different demographic, as far as the amount of food ordered, because the duration of the flights are longer. I think a lot of lobbyists fly in and out of D.C., so those customers are different.”
The business has grown to employ more than 200 professional chefs, drivers and other staff. Between its three locations, a fleet of more than 30 refrigerated vehicles with GPS tracking capabilities deliver meals. The brothers have invested a lot of time and energy selecting the right staff. Their efforts have paid off with an employee turnover rate of less than five percent, a remarkable feat in the food industry.
“In the workforce, it’s hard to hire that personality who is creative and a free thinker, but can still stay within certain restraints,” Celentano said. “Employee turnover is very costly because of training, downtime and other factors. We spend a lot of time making sure this is a workplace that’s attractive and will appeal to the best and brightest employees we can get.”
Bridging the gap
The company had another considerable challenge, which was meeting the demands of growing fractional operators and charter companies that needed more than a lunch or two for a quick hop around New England. A very large fractional client, looking to outsource their catering needs, approached the Celentano brothers almost three years ago. Although it wasn’t a concept the brothers were considering at the time, they quickly determined they were capable of meeting the need.
They answered the challenge by starting one of the largest and most robust catering service networks in the country. The Celentano brothers formed Aviation Services Network, a service matrix that merges more than 60 caterers across the country, to provide coverage for aviation providers. ASN provides centralized billing, invoice verification, menu planning and design, and a rigorous caterer audit process.
By bringing together all these resources and providing each caterer both individualized and group support, the Celentanos were able to establish catering services across the country.
“It’s a win for the client, because they can call one number,” Celentano said. “We bill through one company and then disburse funds to the caterer who does the job.”
A software program created in-house at Rudy’s is the backbone of ASN. It enables its staff to streamline the order and invoice processes.
“It’s very intricate, as far as following the entire process,” Celentano explained. “It tells us when the order is sent, when it’s worked on and when it’s delivered and done. We know what’s happening at every step.”
While the software helps with the mechanics of ASN, the heart of the service lies with the quality caterers who have been personally selected to be part of the ASN program.
“We contacted individual caterers who were already established in their markets, to see how we could bring value to them and to their customers,” Celentano said. “We didn’t find a wedding caterer in Chicago and try to turn them into an airplane caterer. We really wanted the process to be as seamless as possible.”
The benefits have been dramatic for the selected caterers and their clients as well. By sharing resources, goals and objectives, companies within ASN are able to streamline their systems, elevate their products and services, and gain more exposure across the country. It also brings a level of standardized pricing to the niche market, and helps consumers understand the costs of aviation catering.
“We’re able to give these guys some buying power because we have such volume,” Celentano said. “If they can put together a great product that is efficient and cost-effective, they can pass savings on to their customers. The customer wins because they’re getting a better product at a better price.”
A winning combination
Rudy’s Inflight Catering is still growing. In March, an additional 6,000 square feet will be added to the Teterboro location. Although the company has had its share of growing pains, Celentano says he’s pleased with the rate of expansion.
“I think I’m most proud of our controlled growth,” he said. “We would’ve been doomed to fail if we had listened to every FBO manager who ever came to us, wanting a Rudy’s Inflight facility at their location. I think tempered growth shows restraint, caution and intellect.”
It’s that combination of smart growth and quality service that has made Rudy’s Inflight Catering such a success. The Celentanos’ love for the business is one of its biggest assets.
“We had a tremendous learning curve,” Celentano admitted. “But I think that when you love something, you have more of a willingness to learn and absorb, than if you’re working in an area you don’t like. It shows our clients and employees that we have a love for this business. We love airplanes and we love food. It’s just that simple.”
For more information on Rudy’s Inflight Catering, visit [http://www.rudysinflight.com]. For information on the Aviation Services Network, visit [http://www.aviationservicesnetwork.com].