FORTUNE Small Business:

How snack vendors snag in-flight deals

A food vendor quizzes Ask FSB on how to get its snack into the skies.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Dear FSB: We sell a healthy snack alternative to peanuts that we would like to sell to airlines to be sold in-flight. How can I do this?

- Tim Boyer, Raleigh, N.C.

Dear Tim: The skies have limited seats for food vendors, with the Coca Colas (KO, Fortune 500) and PepsiCos (PEP, Fortune 500) of the world sitting in first class. For smaller companies, breaking into the multi-billion dollar in-flight food game takes a unique product, preparation, and a bit of luck.

"The positive thing with new vendors is that all these airlines, everybody, wants to be the latest 'in' trend. Everybody wants to have the new, the latest, the most wowing, the most innovative," said Meredith Gray, director of procurement at LSG Sky Chefs, one of the world's largest airline caterers.

To get your snack into the mile-high food club, pitch your snack to a carrier's purchasing or procurement office. Some airlines have outsourced their food-supply chain management to caterers, who hear from food and beverage companies every day.

But before reaching out, know what works and what doesn't work on an airplane.

"The salesperson needs to do their job and understand our business," Gray said. "We are not standard retail. We're really a true niche business. Somebody needs to take the time to research it before they decide they have the greatest thing ever, and it's a cheese sandwich for $8."

The size and shape of an item matters, as does its price and shelf life. To learn how to tailor your product to the industry, check out trade publications and groups, such as the International Flight Services Association and the International Travel Catering Association. Another option is to go through an airline broker, who will work to package goods to be airplane-friendly. Brokers are paid a 3% to 5% commission generally, according to Denise Poole, CEO of at AMI Inflight, a major airline broker.

But often, what it comes down to is having a great product.

"If it has instant appeal, you don't have to have someone plugging it. It would sell itself," Poole said.

Having a unique item and being in the right place paid off for Route 11 Potato Chips, which produces all-natural chips in such flavors as dill pickle and Chesapeake Crab. An airline caterer's buyer found Route 11 at a trade show last year, and later contacted them when Virgin Atlantic came looking for a different kind of potato chip.

Sarah Cohen, president of Route 11 Potato Chips - which has 33 employees and 2007 revenue of about $3 million - said the company hadn't set out to attract an airline customer. Being visible in the market helped it find its unexpected opportunity.

"It's one of those things that you might go do a food show, and you're talking to people and basically planting seeds," Cohen said. "You don't know what's going to pop up and what's not. I think that's what the trade shows are really good for." To top of page

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