The story behind Delta’s farm-to-tray-table BusinessElite meals

Linton Hopkins is passionate about food. As the chef behind Atlanta’s Restaurant Eugene Hopkins has plenty of experience working to bring local goods to the table for guests in a “farm-to-table” sort of environment. Converting that into the meals served on a plane has any number of challenges, each of which Hopkins has overcome to get his meals on to four routes covering approximately 500 plates each day. And, despite that it seems to beg such treatment, Hopkins truly believes that “farm-to-tray-table” can be a true change in the way people eat on board aircraft, not the punch line to a joke.

The cheese plate offered at Restaurant Eugene, Linton Hopkins' Atlanta Restaurant.
The cheese plate offered at Restaurant Eugene, Linton Hopkins’ Atlanta Restaurant.

At a recent dinner hosted by Delta at Restaurant Eugene, Hopkins addressed the gathered group and discussed some of the challenges faced (both in airline catering and in the real world) and how he handles them.

The tipping point has happened around food. People are refusing to eat bad food.
Linton Hopkins

Hopkins wants to see the farm-to-tray-table catering expand to more routes and eventually to other catering sites. That’s a tall order, mostly based on logistics of acquiring the ingredients and also the prep/packaging/service on the plane. Ramping up the small farm operations to be able to supply more raw ingredients takes time and a long-term commitment from the buyers. Getting meals prepared and in to the airline catering world is not trivial either. Eugene Kitchens is a separate operation Hopkins created solely to deal with the purchasing, warehousing, preparation and delivery of meals to Gate Gourmet at the Atlanta Airport. Those daily deliveries eventually make their way on to the flights.

The human element is perhaps the most significant factor to Hopkins. It is not just about acquiring a bunch of ingredients and putting them together to make a meal. He leans regularly on long-term friendships to help source nearly all of his ingredients. When cooking for 50-100 guests a night (the restaurant is not particularly large) the sourcing is somewhat less challenging. When it is 500 seats per night and being out of an item is much less well tolerated the supply chain becomes stressed. Rather than sourcing all the charcuterie and cheeses from a single vendor, for example, Hopkins relies on many smaller suppliers. They are providing 10-12 pounds of product to Hopkins and Delta daily, in addition to their regular output. For small operators such volumes can be challenging.

Sturgeon caviar (sourced in Florida) atop a french omelette in sauce nantua.
Sturgeon caviar (sourced in Florida) atop a french omelette in sauce nantua. Hopkins hopes to get this on to the planes in a future menu update.

Or it can save the company. One local supplier had hit the big time, moving from selling preserves in a local farmer’s market to stocking product in Whole Foods. For the two-person operation, however, it was the beginning of the end. Between promotional work and the shift in demand the two couldn’t keep up and were ready to fold the business. Instead their entire production run – still small batches – is now purchased by Eugene Kitchen and included in the on-board product. Everyone but the Whole Foods customers wins with that approach.

Hopkins shared many other stories about small operations where the support first of his kitchen and now the Delta catering has helped to buoy operations. Whether it is a peach farmer in central Georgia or the benne seed supplier who still collects them the old-fashioned way as the pods explode rather than the newer sesame seeds which are easier to harvest (they apparently don’t explode out of the pods), Hopkins is doing everything he can to support those operations and help ensure that aspect of the food chain:

Here I am as a human being who only wants to eat good food…. This food is sacred; this food comes from friends of mine.

And the small farm, heritage crops provide that to him. Delta affords him the opportunity to spread it to others as well.

There are, of course, differences in the way the food tastes on board the flight versus on the ground. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to be in the BusinessElite cabin on a flight from Atlanta to London, Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam and I don’t expect that will change any time soon. But starting with spectacular food on the ground means you’ve at least got a fighting chance. And this truly qualifies.

Separate from his commentary on the process behind producing the meals Hopkins also provided advice to the group on his preferred way to explore a new city: Find the farmers’ market. And not only to have fresh food available for your personal dining, but also in hopes of finding chefs combing the stands for the local goods which will grace their tables that night. Hopkins encouraged us to speak with those chefs, to follow them back to their restaurants and dine with them. Sure, that’s maybe a little creepy and stalker-ish, and I’m not too sure how you identify chefs in the market versus others. But I bet the meals are spectacular if you can make it happen.

n.b.- As noted above Delta hosted this event; I was one of the invited attendees. And it was delicious.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Meanwhile, at United…

    “Mr. Sullivan, today I have a beef burrito wrap for lunch, served with mushroom soup.”

    1. Someone didn’t read all the way to the end of the story. 😉

      They are currently available ex-ATL to FRA, CDG, LHR and AMS on DL metal in the BizE cabin.

      1. I don’t know how I missed that. I actually went back and looked for the routes a second time. Must be blind this morning. Or maybe you just confused me by actually spelling out the city names, instead of listing the airport codes. 😉

    1. Hopkins seems to think that they have a chance of getting past just Atlanta and past just the ~500 seats/night they produce today. It depends on the catering companies and finding the farms to be suppliers and all sorts of other things, but he’s optimistic. I’m not quite as convinced it is going to grow quickly, but he did manage to get his product from 25 hamburgers a night in a bar to 2500/night at the baseball stadium in town so he has some experience. And he definitely has the personality to make it happen. He very much doesn’t like taking “no” for an answer.

  2. I hope Hopkins thrives over the longer term. It is great to see a successful chef actually doing the production, not just designing the menus. With fingers crossed, I hope the airline clients continue buying better catering. For longer flights and in premium fare seats, the CAN afford to serve food of this quality. (As I’ve noted elsewhere, the cost difference between slop and truly good food is not all that great.) If I read this correctly, the Hopkins meals are currently limited to the four out-bound routes from Atlanta. Do you have any idea how they cater the return legs? I cannot imagine that they are ‘double catering’ on those long flights. A great post. -C.

    1. The return flights are catered with the “normal” fare at the outstations. They are not round-trip stocking the meals. Definitely not enough galley space for that, among other issued.

      1. Thanks. That’s +/- what I expected. Someday we might see exceptionally good food on both ends, but it ain’t happened yet. -C.

  3. It is good to see a company trying to increase the quality of its product, and Delta’s Business Elite is delivering a good hard and soft product with operational reliability. Flights that serve farm to table meals and provide Tumi amenity kits shows Delta wants to compete with the likes of Lufthansa.

    However, this comes at the opportunity cost of the devaluation and reduction of their loyalty program. It will be interesting to see how other airlines measure up to Delta in terms of their product and operations. AA is installing a new Business class cabin and gets good reviews, but it remains to be seen how the AA-US merger will impact the Aadvantage program.

    This leaves United in the position of continued cost and service reductions while simultaneously matching Delta’s RBS loyalty program. I would not be surprised to see United HVFs and elites providing Delta and American the opportunity to earn their business.

    1. I’ve not seen or tasted it, but I hear that the Corn Soup is great.
      As as aside, related to airplane Food Porn, how many pix has anyone seen of airborne soup that do not include Soup Slop? I know, it is darn near impossible, even when served at the seat. I just think it is FUNNY to see Soup Slop on an otherwise beautiful tray. Simple physics says that just won’t go away anytime soon. Truth is, if the *(%ing soup is good and At the Proper Temperature, I don’t care. Getting most of them warm enough does seem to be a problem…

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