While you’re eating a meager bag of pretzels on a domestic commercial flight, do you ever wonder what a corporate chief executive might be savoring on his elite Gulfstream jet? As business aviation has soared over the last few decades, so has the quality of in-flight catering. Long ago, an executive on a company jet might have snacked on boxed lunches. Today, well, the sky’s the limit. That tuna fish sandwich has been replaced by scallop sashimi with lemon confit, or some other made-to-order dish worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant. And it’s not serve-yourself dining — flight attendants are tous les jours as corporate aircraft have grown in size and range. Typically, these jets are owned or booked by executives, sports teams, celebrities, and — of course — politicians such as the scandalized Tom Price. The clientele can be demanding, but in-flight caterer Paul Rossi is accustomed to pleasing. His company, Rita’s Catering, serves aircraft operating in and out of Boston-area airports, including Logan, Hanscom, Beverly Municipal, and others. Food orders usually are placed through a fixed based operator — a third-party that coordinates everything from fuel, baggage handling, maintenance, and concierge services. Chefs at Rita’s Catering’s main commissary in Everett fulfill all requests, whether it’s for grass-fed beef, escargots, or a simple honey-glazed doughnut. The airline division of the longtime caterer is 15 percent of Rita’s total business, with sales hitting $1.3 million last year, serving about half of the traffic coming into local airports. Twelve years ago, Rita’s airline division was sold, with Rossi agreeing to a noncompete agreement, but now he’s back, once again making cuisine for 30,000 feet. The Globe spoke with him about flying high in the catering business.
“Rita’s began over five decades ago as a small neighborhood restaurant. My parents were Italian immigrants who believed in delicious, home-cooked meals made with fresh ingredients, a philosophy we still adhere to today. The business went from a small sub shop in Chelsea to the No. 2 privately owned caterer in Boston, serving corporate cafeterias, private events, conferences, and more. The airline business started when a client of ours asked my father if he would be interested in doing food for a private jet.
“Today, on average, we do 20 to 30 flights on a busy day, [with] very elite clientele. The planes are loaded with gas, cleaned, and then we bring the food to [the] plane. At Logan, the food has to go through an X-ray machine.
“Our kitchens prepare the food, with expediters making sure it’s packed correctly, out the door, and delivered in time. If you’re late, you’re in trouble because the plane has to depart whether the food is on it or not. The planes are Challengers, Boeing business class, Learjets, or Gulfstream, with an average of four to six people on board. They might be going to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, or all the way to California.
“This morning, we had a Saudi jet. The menu included no alcohol in any seasoning, fresh squeezed juices, filet mignon, and sugar-free desserts. They unloaded two containers of their own china for us to put the food on. It was a $3,000 order for one guy — the rest for the crew. We do whatever it takes. Jack Welch, former chief executive of GE, had peculiar taste — pasta with tomato sauce, Gummy Bears, and Jell-O. A health care tech executive wanted pig’s feet.
“It’s important to know what kind of equipment is on board. Some jets have microwaves, others ovens or just a warming oven. We attend to any detail, whether it’s [a] request for flowers, chocolate, an Arabic newspaper, or dry ice for ice cream.
“Sometimes the client asks me, ‘Who’s Rita?’ It’s my mom. She’s 82 years old and living in Scottsdale, Ariz. She’s in good health and makes it to the casino two or three times a week. But she doesn’t cook much anymore. The only time she cooks is for me when I visit, and that’s it. My dad sits in his chair, saying, ‘Rita, get me this, Rita, get me that.’ She gets fed up, and says, ‘My name isn’t Rita anymore.’ ”Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at email@example.com.