Every time a Dulles passenger peels off the foil from a beef-in-gravy dinner, a layer of the troubled airline industry is revealed. And Reston's Gate Gourmet International, which prepares many of those meals, is right in the middle of those difficulties.
The company, which serves an average of 534,000 in-flight meals a day around the world, says it is losing money with nearly every forkful. As airlines have struggled to stay aloft in the face of intense competition and soaring fuel prices, they have been cutting back on food, as any economy-class passenger who feels lucky to score a bag of pretzels knows.
In the case of Gate Gourmet, there's more beneath that strip of foil than the hungry passenger might imagine: There's billionaire David Bonderman, a Washington lawyer-turned-financier who pulls the company's financial strings. Chief executive David N. Siegel, a corporate turnaround specialist who once headed US Airways. A nasty labor dispute in London -- seemingly resolved last week -- that resulted in hundreds of flight cancellations this summer. Even a guest appearance by the Rolling Stones.
The latest turn in the Gate Gourmet story began in 2002 when Texas Pacific Group, a private equity firm led by Bonderman, bought the company from Swissair Group.
The catering company already was in trouble. Airlines had been aggressively cutting back meal service, particularly on shorter-haul flights, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, briefly shut down the aviation industry and scared many passengers away.
Gate Gourmet, which is private and doesn't disclose many financial details, says that its overall revenue is down 35 percent since 2000 and that its operation at London's Heathrow Airport alone has lost more than $100 million over that period.
That may be chump change to Bonderman, whose $15 billion Texas Pacific Group portfolio includes brand-name companies such as Bally, Burger King and J. Crew. And Gate Gourmet doesn't lack for customers: It serves 220 carriers and is the world's second-largest airline caterer behind money-losing LSG Sky Chefs, owned by Lufthansa.
Still, airline industry experts are not giddy about the future of catering at 35,000 feet.
"With the airlines cutting out food, this is a tough, tough business to be in," said Aaron J. Gellman, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management who once sat on the board of a catering firm that went bankrupt.
Ray Neidl, an airline analyst at Calyon Securities (USA) Inc., said he opened a speech at a food catering conference in Tampa last spring with this: "I didn't think there was an industry in worse shape than the airline industry -- but I have finally found one."
Gate Gourmet figures its best hope of survival is to do exactly what the airlines have done -- cut staff and demand more favorable terms from labor unions.
Last year, Bonderman recruited Siegel, a longtime friend who had honed his cost-cutting skills as an executive at Continental Airlines Inc. and US Airways Group Inc. -- companies Bonderman's group also invested in -- and Avis Rent A Car System Inc.
Bonderman and Siegel declined to be interviewed for this story. The company responded to questions largely by e-mail.
"Gate Gourmet's financial challenge . . . reflects the volatile state of the airline industry that we serve," company spokesman John Bronson wrote in one such message. "This is precisely why we are in the midst of a restructuring. . . . Labor makes up more than half our operating expenses."
The company, which operates in 30 countries and has headquarters in Reston and Zurich, contends that its Heathrow operation has been unprofitable "in large measure due to unproductive 1970s-style work practices," according to Bronson. Some workers, the company said, even get 21/2-hour breaks during their eight-hour shifts.
As the company was discussing new work rules with the union, hundreds of employees walked off the job at Heathrow in August to protest the hiring of temporary, nonunion workers. Calling the strike illegal, the company fired more than 700 workers, prompting British Airways baggage handlers to walk out in sympathy. That led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights, the stranding of 100,000 passengers and an uproar in the British press.
A London tabloid, the Mirror, branded the caterer "a rapacious Yankee outfit."
Last week, Gate Gourmet announced an agreement with the union to reinstate or compensate the striking workers and to change "working practices." Union members were still voting on the proposal over the weekend, Bronson said.
Gate Gourmet is little known in the Washington business community -- it moved its U.S. base from Memphis to Reston this year -- but its reach is far and wide.
Ever had a meal on a United, American or Air France flight? There's a good chance it was prepared in one of Gate Gourmet's 109 kitchens -- perhaps the one at Dulles International Airport, where about 600 of the company's 22,000 employees are based.
The 120,000-square-foot Dulles facility is a year-round, 24-7 operation with separate areas for food preparation -- hot and cold -- tray assembly and dishwashing. The Dulles kitchen prepares up to 120,000 meals a week, which are delivered to airplanes in 40 hydraulic trucks. Food and beverage carts are trucked from the airplanes to the facility, where trash and dishes are separated.
The Reston headquarters has a decidedly more corporate feel -- 45,000 square feet on two floors of a 14-story building off the Dulles Toll Road. The company moved its U.S. headquarters to Reston to tap "better access to international travel" at nearby Dulles Airport "and a larger market for recruiting management talent," Bronson wrote in an e-mail.
In addition to overseeing the company's U.S. operations, the 150 Reston employees have procurement, technology, asset management and public relations responsibilities.
From his base in Reston, Siegel is the public face of the company.
He came to Gate Gourmet after resigning under pressure from US Airways in April 2004. Under Siegel, the airline filed for bankruptcy reorganization and won hundreds of millions of dollars in wage and benefit concessions from workers. The carrier emerged from bankruptcy under Siegel, but some union leaders called for his resignation after he demanded even more concessions.
"To go back to the table a second time -- after the labor unions already had to give up things in bankruptcy -- you're always going to be a super villain. And that's the reputation Siegel got," analyst Neidl said. "When you keep going back, you lose credibility."
Siegel left US Airways with a $4.7 million severance package, further angering union leaders. But he set the stage for a second bankruptcy filing and the airline's recent acquisition by America West.
Bonderman is widely perceived as having the final say in Gate Gourmet's operation.
He has been a lawyer at Arnold & Porter in the District, an assistant professor at Tulane University Law School and chief operating officer of the investment firm headed by Texas billionaire Robert M. Bass. Bonderman has been chairman of Irish-based low-cost airline Ryanair since 1996.
In recent weeks, several London newspapers reminded readers that Bonderman spent millions of dollars on a Las Vegas party -- around the time of his 60th birthday in late 2002 -- hiring comedian Robin Williams and the Rolling Stones as entertainers. And they suggested his party money might have been better spent propping up Gate Gourmet.
The Sun mused that "if workers at Gate Gourmet . . . can't get no satisfaction, their boss can," borrowing from a Stones favorite that was heard at the party.
Gellman, the Northwestern professor, wonders if labor unrest might arise in the United States as workers grow uneasy with the company's restructuring. "That disease could spread," he warned.
The U.S. workers have agreed to take their current differences with the company to arbitration. But tensions remain: The International Brotherhood of Teamsters said it is pursuing a grievance on the health insurance costs its members incurred when the company briefly cut some benefits this summer.
"Siegel is a perfectly good CEO, but he has an awful job ahead of him," said Darryl Jenkins, a longtime airline consultant who is vice chairman of P2world.com, an Internet travel site. "You're in an industry that's going to decline. And you are going to have to get people to accept less money and work harder."
For now, Gate Gourmet's priorities may best be illustrated by the job listings posted on its Web site. As last week ended, there were two jobs available at the company's Reston headquarters.
Both were for financial analysts.