Inside a commercial kitchen in Marietta, a crew of bakers makes bagels and challah bread familiar to patrons of Goldbergs delis — right alongside staff preparing tidy rectangular dishes of chicken marsala to be loaded onto Delta Air Lines planes as in-flight meals.
Goldbergs Group a year and a half ago expanded well beyond its bagel shop roots, cracking into the fast-paced world of airline catering thanks to disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a world where global giants like Gate Gourmet and LSG Sky Chefs rule, local favorite Goldbergs now serves flyers on Delta international flights departing from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
As the pandemic drove airlines like Delta to pause most food and beverage service on flights and then pivot to ramp up offerings amid a rebound in travel, the situation has opened opportunities for smaller operators like Goldbergs.
“It meant a lot that Delta was willing to put their faith in us,” said Bradley Saxe, CEO of Mainline Foods, the Goldbergs subsidiary that makes food to supply Goldbergs shops, clients and in-flight catering for Delta flights.
Now, Cobb County-based Goldbergs runs a massive former gate Gourmet flight kitchen at the world’s busiest airport under a subsidiary called Mainline Aviation.
Early in the pandemic, air travel plummeted and airlines cut in-flight meals and drinks onboard in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19. That led to mass layoffs at airline catering contractors, with hundreds losing their jobs at the Atlanta airport.
Delta halted its regular beverage service and began handing out just bottled water. The airline enlisted flight attendants to help assemble snack bags to give to passengers.
Last year, Delta began gradually resuming more of its in-flight meal service.It has been revamping menus while working with new catering contractors in Atlanta.
Delta is “always looking for innovation and new ideas, so we encourage a broad range of companies to participate in the process, not just traditional airline caterers,” according to Mike Crowley, the airline’s vice president of onboard services.
The drastic slowdown in traffic during the pandemic offered “a chance to stop and rethink and reflect on how to do it better, how to do it smarter, how to do it simpler,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian last year.
Saxe’s father Wayne, who emigrated from South Africa, bought Atlanta deli Goldberg & Son with a partner about 30 years ago. The operation has since expanded to a total of 10 shops, a commissary, a food manufacturing operation and concessions operations and construction. Goldbergs products are also now sold in Costco and other retail stores.
The Mainline subsidiary is using the nimbleness of its relatively small operation to maneuver through supply chain issues that have caused shortages in items ranging from grains to dry ice that’s used to keep ice cream cold for sundaes in business class.
“We’re kind of able to take a small business approach,” Saxe said.
Goldbergs Group is in the process of moving its headquarters from an office park in Marietta to a building near The Battery next to Truist Park.
Saxe said when there’s a shortage of Sriracha sauce or jam from its suppliers, the company’s small but aggressive procurement team can find an alternative brand for the hot sauce, or make its own jam.
But he acknowledged that it’s not easy providing thousands of in-flight meals a day.
“It’s a very complicated industry,” Saxe said. “Everything has to be on the plane” by departure time, leaving little room for error. And with flights taking off continuously throughout the day, “it doesn’t ever stop.”
It’s not Goldbergs’ first entry into the airport. The company has concessions locations at Hartsfield-Jackson, including a Subway, Braves All Star Grill, and two Goldbergs delis. But with the Delta contract, Mainline has a client that Saxe calls very “detail-oriented,” with many priorities beyond food.
One area that stands out is Delta’s effort to make some parts of flying more environmentally friendly.
“Delta is pushing a lot of initiatives that we can help with,” including by using recycled cardboard for food packaging, Saxe said.
Mainline was part of a “sustainable flight challenge” in May, in which delta operated a flight from Atlanta to Salt Lake City and showcased some green initiatives. The jet was powered with sustainable aviation fuel, a blend of conventional jet fuel and fuel made from bio feedstocks. And Mainline Aviation provided house-made snacks in recyclable packaging.
Delta said it is working with its caterers around the world to improve sustainability.
Goldbergs Group contracts with Pratt Industries to recycle cardboard, which saves water but costs 30-60% more than buying new cardboard, Saxe said.
“We go through so much cardboard,” Saxe said. He acknowledged that the added cost could become an issue. “Every six to eight months, we will look at it and say, what do we want to do here?”
This story first appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and comes to Reporter Newspapers + Atlanta Intown through a content-sharing partnership.