I toured the surprisingly small United Airlines catering facility where 33,000 in-flight meals are made entirely by hand every day

Image
Nothing is automated. Sarah Jacobs
  • We visited United Airlines’ catering facility, Chelsea Food Services, near Newark International Airport in New Jersey,
  • Nothing was automated: Everything was made by hand, and all the ingredients were fresh.
  • The trick to aeroplane food is to only cook it halfway. Steak, for example, is cooked 30% of the way. The rest is done aboard the plane.
  • The facility is incredibly organised: Every meal, cart, and tray is efficiently produced, labelled, and dated.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Besides likening themselves to cattle shoved into an airborne metal tube, there’s nothing airline passengers like to complain about more than how terrible aeroplane food is. But how and where those disappointing in-flight meals get made is rarely thought of.

United Airlines allowed our cameras into its catering facility, Chelsea Food Services, near Newark International Airport in New Jersey. Surprisingly, the food we saw was super fresh, made entirely by hand, and meticulously planned in advance.

Keep scrolling to see all of the work that goes into the making of your in-flight meals.


Welcome to United’s Chelsea Food Services facility, where a team of 1,000 produces 33,000 meals per day.

Image
The facility is located near Newark Airport in New Jersey. Sarah Jacobs

Food services manager Leon Britton showed us around.

Image
At the time of writing, Britton had worked here for 28 years. Sarah Jacobs

Absolutely everyone is required to wear a hair net, and most wear lab coats.

Image
To our eyes, the facility was spotlessly clean. Sarah Jacobs

This place is a machine — every meal, cart, and tray is efficiently produced, labelled, and dated.

Image
The facility is super organised. Sarah Jacobs

Here in the hot kitchen, meals for 217 flights are made daily.

Image
The hot kitchen is actually quite small for the amount of work it has to accommodate. Sarah Jacobs

Fresh veggies are chopped by hand and cooked on a grill. Nothing is automated.

Image
Everything is prepared by hand. Sarah Jacobs

The trick to aeroplane food is to only cook it halfway. Steak, for example, is cooked 30% of the way. The final cook is done onboard in the aircraft’s convection ovens.

Image
A common misconception is that planes have microwaves. Convection ovens, which use fans to push the heat, are faster and can cook items at a lower temperature. Sarah Jacobs

Items that do not need to be cooked, like this fruit salad, are made outside the hot kitchen. Fresh produce is delivered multiple times a day.

Image
We asked how many produce deliveries the facility gets a day, but they told us it happens so frequently that they can’t even count! Sarah Jacobs

Here’s a view from outside the hot kitchen. It looks pretty small when you consider that 33,000 meals come out of that space every day.

Image
The kitchen wasn’t that busy when we visited one afternoon. Sarah Jacobs

The facility must also supply flight attendants with the tools they need to prepare and serve the meals.

Image
The facility is not only in charge of food, but utensils and dishes too. Sarah Jacobs

Everything the flight attendants could possibly need (think: tongs, ice scoopers) is niftily packed in an oven mitt.

Image
Shoving everything into an oven mitt saves space. Sarah Jacobs

The precise amount of serving equipment that each flight needs is planned and packed in these metal bins far in advance.

Image
The catering facility is also in charge of organising plates and utensils. Sarah Jacobs

Once meals have been prepared, they’re rolled into the “cold room.”

Image
Meals are loaded onto trays and into carts. Sarah Jacobs

This room is kept at a chilly 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Image
The cold room. Sarah Jacobs

Here, employees package every single dish by hand.

Image
Foil sheets were pre-cut. Sarah Jacobs

The dishes are then set aside for the next step …

Image
Meals are loaded into carts once they are ready. Sarah Jacobs

… which is to arrange the trays. Pictures on the walls show employees how to arrange food and what the final product should look like.

Image
Employees make sure every meal looks the same. Sarah Jacobs

Completed trays are put into the same food carts you see onboard the plane. Each one is labelled with its flight number.

Image
Every meal, cart, and tray is efficiently produced, labelled, and dated. Sarah Jacobs

Once the carts have been loaded, they’re moved to an even colder room to be blast-chilled. This room is kept at a frosty 38 degrees; the people who work here wear heavy winter coats.

Image
Once cooked, the food is kept at 38F. Sarah Jacobs

These carts are ready and waiting to board an aircraft.

Image
Carts are prepared at the catering facility before boarding planes. Sarah Jacobs

Before boarding, carts are packed with dry ice to keep the food fresh.

Image
The food cannot sit out for more than six to eight hours. Sarah Jacobs

Dishes are conveniently kept at the bottom of the carts.

Image
Carts are prepared at the facility. Sarah Jacobs

Here’s the shocker: Meals can’t sit for more than six to eight hours before boarding a plane. If a flight is delayed for more than a couple of hours, all of its meals could get thrown out and replaced. Not only is the food wasted, but employees must work overtime to get the new food ready.

Image
Meals are covered in dry ice, but cannot sit out for more than six to eight hours. Sarah Jacobs

Snack carts are also preloaded and have their own area.

Image
Snack carts are a familiar sight. Sarah Jacobs

Walking into the soft-drink area kind of feels like being in Costco.

Image
Soft drinks are kept separate from alcohol. Sarah Jacobs

Alcohol is kept in its own, restricted spot.

Image
Alcohol has its own room. Sarah Jacobs

That’s a lot of booze.

Image
The facility also stores many of the food and drink items. Sarah Jacobs

This is the enormous dish washing facility.

Image
Dishes are all pressure washed. Sarah Jacobs

After use, everything, including the pushcarts, is pressure washed.

Image
Everything was spotless. Sarah Jacobs

If workers hit their monthly goals and run on time, they get a $US300 bonus for the month, hence the “$US300” we saw plastered all over the facility.

Image
Employees are incentivized by a $US300 monthly bonus. Sarah Jacobs