- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) — Pistachio-crusted bluefin tuna topped with shaved fennel and blood oranges. Prosciutto and burratta mozzarella on bone bread, garnished with arugula. Grilled chicken with avocado and chipotle aioli.

Luxury hotels across the country serve such gourmet entrees in their dining rooms.

Now, many are offering the meals in takeout bags or boxes to well-heeled travelers forced to fend for themselves as airlines scale back food service. It’s a way for the upscale hotels to attract repeat business and luxury travelers.

“I don’t want to be down on the airport, but once you get there, you’re limited to whatever fast food they have,” said Pamela Morris, 32, who travels frequently as special projects director for an economic development council in Colorado.

Ms. Morris recently ordered a poached chicken breast pita sandwich with tarragon mayonnaise from the flight food menu of the Ritz-Carlton of Pentagon City during a business trip to Washington, D.C.

“It was perfect for what we needed it for,” she said. “It was filling and fresh, and it was easy.”

The trend toward gourmet travel offerings by hotels began to take off when high fuel prices and competition from no-frills carriers forced many domestic airlines to trim costs by closing kitchens, industry observers said.

“You saw them starting to deal with the void of what domestic airlines have been offering,” said Albert Herrera, vice president for hotels and resorts at Virtuoso, a network of travel agents that specializes in luxury trips.

Airlines that haven’t cut out meals have started selling their passengers light fare. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and other carriers offer cold sandwiches and snack boxes for about $5 on long flights.

“It’s your everyday turkey burrito wrapped in cellophane,” aviation consultant Jack Keady said.

By contrast, the posh Peninsula Beverly Hills sells takeout platters of bluefin tuna, poached salmon and Cobb salad in narrow cardboard boxes with suitcaselike handles for about $20.

Guests at the Hotel Plaza Athene in New York can order a chicken club or shaved roast beef sandwich packed with monogrammed cloth napkins and a reusable thermos from the hotel’s “Goodies to Go” menu.

Hotels aren’t just filling doggie bags with food from their restaurant menus. Some are devising special dishes that travel well and stay tasty at room temperature.

“It’s actually a very difficult thing to come up with something,” said chef Dakota Weiss at the Ritz-Carlton of Marina del Rey in Los Angeles. “You never know how long it’s going to stick around.”

The meals are a niche product, so sales growth hasn’t been tracked separately. But hotel managers said sales are up.

The number of so-called “Pen Air” meals leaving the kitchen of the Peninsula has increased to about 30 a week, said dining director Christian Boyens.

The Ritz-Carlton of Phoenix sells about 20 meals a week from its “Flight Bites” menu, sales manager Kimberly Urich said.

The meals aren’t big sellers for international flights because many of those carriers are enhancing menus as part of their marketing strategies.

Air France has said it will start serving meals created by Guy Martin, chef at the legendary Grand Velour restaurant in Paris.

Peninsula chef Sean Hardy is creating multi-course meals for first- and business-class passengers on some Lufthansa flights.

Industry watchers said the takeout meals are good for business because hotels can build loyalty among big-spending travelers by feeding them in-flight.

“You’re delivering service, not just when they pay the bill and you put them in a limo, but so that they’re also thinking of you on their flight back home,” Mr. Herrera said.

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