Serving the Unfriendly Skies

By Amy Traverso | Boston Magazine |

When it comes to satisying the rarified requests of the most finicky jet-setters in Boston, nobody’s got more practice than Michael DePaolis and Steven La Rosa. As owners of the Saugus-based company Sensations, which provides catering services to private planes flying out of Logan and Hanscom, they’ve become experts in indulging the quirks and cravings of the well heeled, such as Bono’s macrobiotic diet and what they call Heather Mills’s "crazy vegan stuff." When Tom Brady proposed to Gisele on that flight to New York, guess who supplied the white roses and Veuve Clicquot? And when the Saudi royal family flits in from Riyadh to visit a junior prince at Harvard, DePaolis and La Rosa’s team stocks the plane, juicing cases of fresh fruit through the night, running the royal linens over to Laundry Express, and procuring $2,000 worth of Iranian osetra caviar—services for which they can bill the royals up to $22,000 per visit.

Regal clients notwithstanding, business today isn’t what it used to be. First came the market collapse, and then the November tongue-lashing that angry members of Congress gave Big Three auto executives over their use of personal aircraft. Since then, private jets have become an unpopular symbol of excess. At Bedford’s Hanscom Field, private jet travel in December was down 22 percent from the previous year.

As a result, DePaolis says, Sensations has seen a 20 percent drop in business. La Rosa, who normally manages the kitchen, is now pulling 12- and 14-hour shifts as he works to drum up clients. "Even if companies have the money," DePaolis says, "they don’t want to be seen spending it."

The economy hasn’t grounded everyone, though. Some corporate accounts remain solid, including GE and—remarkably, considering all the grim news from Vegas—Harrah’s and Las Vegas Sands (whose CEOs, Gary Loveman and Sheldon Adelson, have homes here). "The high rollers are still flying," DePaolis says. So are the teams winging into town to play the Bruins, Celtics, and Sox.

Still, those who’ve kept on flying private are doing so with a dash of austerity. "It’s more sandwiches and fewer seafood platters," DePaolis says. "The foie gras and Wagyu beef and Kurobuta pork…we’re not seeing a lot of that now." It’s a major blow to Sensations’ 22 line cooks and delivery people, who lose hours when things are slow and orders less complicated.

On the brighter side, the downturn has created an opportunity for DePaolis and La Rosa to innovate. For instance, they’ve begun selling $10 frozen versions of their in-flight meals at their spinoff bakery, Sensational Cupcakes, a little shop located just around the corner from the catering center. Until business bounces back, DePaolis says, the key is keeping up work with time-share and membership services like NetJets and Sentient. And hoping the Saudis make their next trip through town soon.

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