Highly-regarded chef and restaurateur Luke Mangan expects to find himself off the menu at Virgin Australia 2.0, as new owners Bain Capital take the airline down a few notches into a value-oriented ‘mid-market’ proposition.
Mangan says he is also owed in the vicinity of $400,000 by the airline, which collapsed into administration on April 21 with debts of almost $7 billion – although he’s resigned to getting little if any of that back.
“We’ve been owed about $400,000 for some time now, before all this even happened,” Mangan tells Executive Traveller.
“So I’m on a long list of creditors, and that’s the way it is – I’m one of those guys who doesn’t like to cry over spilt milk.”
A Bain Capital spokesman declined to offer comment beyond the firm's few published statements, having previously advised that it was "too early to discuss any details."
Mangan developed the airline’s highly-regarded business class menu, with what he describes as “lighter, cleaner, fresher approach” to inflight dining – and was also in charge of the à la carte dining at Virgin's exclusive invitation-only The Club lounges.
Bain is believed to be paring back the entire business class package towards a lower cost base, in keeping with its ‘value-based’ approach and a steer away from corporate travellers towards small-medium businesses.
The same thinking is expected to result in the closure of The Club lounges, created with the sole purpose of competing against Qantas’ influential Chairman’s Lounge network to woo the top end of town, especially companies with large travel budgets which could be directed Virgin’s way.
"We are not looking to take Qantas head on, especially in their corporate part of the market,” Bain Capital’s local managing director Mike Murphy has stated. “We are not looking to attack the very high end of corporate Australia”
"In our research, access to The Club is important to a small elite segment of our customers and not the mainstream.”
“Things like a fancy club and fancy meals and all of that are relevant to a very small portion of customers… but for the vast majority of customers, they just don't value that as much," Murphy has told The Financial Review.
The Club: fine dining, or contemporary casual?
“We set all The Clubs up from day one with our Luke’s Kitchen brand,” Mangan says, although he maintains “it wasn’t fancy ‘fine dining’, just good simple casual food.”
Be that as it may, The Club members will miss their freshly-cooked ‘eggs any way’ breakfasts, the grilled salmon, thick steaks and especially the truffle fries.
“They were generous servings and the best food you could ever have in an airport” one The Club member, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Executive Traveller.
Mangan was hired as the airline’s consulting chef by former CEO John Borghetti as part of the transformation of low-cost Virgin Blue into the upmarket Virgin Australia, and he believes that “for the last 10 years, we are doing great things.”
“Obviously it wasn’t working, trying to take on Qantas – Qantas have got a good product and we couldn’t keep competing against that model.”
“But John wanted to change things, which he did, and hats off to him for what he did.”
Mangan was also involved in training Virgin’s business class cabin crew in food and wine appreciation, preparing meals and general service.
“I certainly hope they keep that standard up and don’t let it slip,” he says.