Meeting professionals and other travelers can enjoy airplane food—yes, airplane food—without even hopping on a plane, now that a fast-food restaurant featuring in-flight menu items is opening in Malaysia, with many more to follow around the world.
Santan Restaurant and T&Co Cafe, which is debuting this month in Kuala Lumpur, is the latest brainchild of Tony Fernandes, CEO of AirAsia—and given his past successes, he is totally confident that it will succeed. When he told people in 2001 that he was going to create a low-cost airline headquartered near Kuala Lumpur, they didn’t know whether to laugh or simply shake their heads in disbelief.
Fernandes followed through on his dream, however, creating AirAsia, which soon became widely recognized as the world’s top low-cost air carrier and is now the largest airline in Malaysia. And he has people laughing and shaking their heads again as he opens the fast-food eatery this month, featuring a menu that draws from AirAsia’s in-flight offerings at affordable prices (about $3 per meal).
“A year ago, when I first conjured up the idea of turning Santan and T&Co, our in-flight food choices, into a fast-food restaurant, people thought I was crazy—just as they thought 18 years ago, when I said I was starting an airline. Look how that turned out!” Fernandes wrote in a LinkedIn post.
Don’t think that he’s simply replicating the entire AirAsia menu or creating an Asian version of McDonald’s, though. Some 30 percent of the menu items at Santan Restaurant and T&Co Cafe will consist of offerings aboard AirAsia flights, such as nasi lemak, a signature Malaysian rice dish with a chili condiment. The menu will be supplemented by items that use local ingredients sourced from around the ASEAN region. For example, the house blend coffee is made from the best beans in the ASEAN region, including Laos, Vietnam and organic, shade-grown coffee beans from Muser Coffee Hill, Thailand.
“We have seen a significant appetite for our in-flight menu offerings beyond our flights across the region, and this is our answer to that demand,” Catherine Go, the restaurant’s general manager said in a statement. “We are very proud to extend what started out as an in-flight menu into new markets and reiterate our support for local and ASEAN producers and suppliers.”
This only begins to tell the story. At the restaurant—which is in Kuala Lumpur’s Mid Valley Megamall, about 40 miles from AirAsia’s headquarters at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL)—all customers will place orders at digital kiosks, while a camera scans their faces to process payment. A highly automated system then will prepare and serve meals in about four minutes.
“While the involvement of these devices will include basic tasks at first, the ultimate aim is for the installation of machines that are able to interact with most kitchen equipment, such as blenders, whisks, knives and bobs,” Fernandes wrote on the LinkedIn post. “In other words, we aim to have our own ‘robotic kitchen’ in the near future.”
Fernandes says the kiosks will utilize artificial intelligence and Machine Learning to understand each customer’s meal preferences, thereby enabling them to customize the menu display for subsequent orders.
The new restaurant represents just the first step in what Fernandes foresees as the creation of a large chain. By the end of 2020, he plans to have five fully owned restaurants and 100 franchise locations.
“Our dream is to have one in Times Square,” he told Reuters.