Bill Bendokas of New England Airlines.
The Wall Street Journal
By CHARLES PASSY
Aug. 26, 2015 8:46 p.m. ET
BLOCK ISLAND, R.I.—By his estimate, Bill Bendokas has flown at least a half-million passengers during his time at New England Airlines, the small, regional carrier he founded in 1970 to connect this pear-shaped island with points along the East Coast. And that isn’t factoring in the countless prescriptions he has transported (the island lacks a pharmacy) or boxes of auto parts or even the occasional farm animal.
These days, it sometimes seems that Mr. Bendokas is in an altogether different business, one that involves the careful shipping of steaming, pint-sized containers of General Tso’s chicken, moo shu pork and shrimp lo mein.
Mr. Bendokas is Block Island’s Chinese-food delivery guy.
And sushi delivery guy. And pizza delivery guy. You name the category of food and there’s a good chance the jovial pilot has brought it aboard one of his seven planes, which range in size from six to 10 seats. The food, of course, is kept in cargo.
Mr. Bendokas is hardly a restaurateur or chef himself: The eateries on the mainland, including at least two Chinese restaurants, take the orders directly from customers, do the cooking and then deliver the food to New England Airlines’ location in Westerly, R.I., in time for the next scheduled flight to Block Island.
The veteran airman recognizes the odd culinary role he plays in the life of this bucolic 10-square-mile island that has become an increasingly popular summer tourist destination. There is also ferry service to the island, but the boat operators generally don’t deliver food.
While Block Island supports at least 50 restaurants—from fine-dining establishments to seafood shacks and a couple of Mexican places—it has long lacked a Chinese restaurant. And when summer turns to fall and then winter and the island’s population drops from 20,000 to a mere 1,000, nearly every restaurant closes. In all instances, Mr. Bendokas fills the gap, typically charging an $8 “freight” fee for his food-delivery service (and he won’t accept tips above that).
“We’re just the mainland connection,” says the pilot. As for the craving that islanders have for dumplings, fried rice and such—one Chinese restaurant on the mainland says it does as many as five weekly “air” orders—Mr. Bendokas says the Rhode Island community is no different from others in that respect: “This is America. People are used to Chinese food.”
There are 46,700 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., according to Chinese Restaurant News, a trade publication. (By contrast, there are roughly 4,200 sushi restaurants, according to market researcher IBISWorld.) Moreover, eating Chinese food has become a kind of “benchmark for American-ness,” says Jennifer 8. Lee, author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” a book about America’s endless appetite for Asian cuisine, particularly in its more Americanized form. Ms. Lee makes the point that we’re far more likely to opt for an order of General Tso’s chicken than many “signature” American dishes. “How often do you eat apple pie?” she asks.
But the popularity of General Tso’s chicken notwithstanding, the economic realities of Block Island life make it difficult for a Chinese restaurant to succeed, say locals and restaurant industry observers alike. (The last Chinese place to make a go of it closed more than a decade ago after a very short run, locals add.). Proprietors of Chinese restaurants are usually looking to establish a thriving, year-round operation. “It’s about building a steady business,” says Betty Xie, a spokesperson for Chinese Restaurant News—and preferably one in a location where affordable housing is readily available for workers, many of whom come from China. In Block Island, the median sales price for a home is slightly above $1 million, according to Trulia, a real-estate website, and low-cost year-round rentals are almost impossible to come by because of the summer surge in visitors.
Mr. Bendokas isn’t exactly alone in the food delivery-by-air business.
In Beaver Island, Mich., the largest island in Lake Michigan, the Chinese food comes via Fresh Air Aviation, a nine-year-old carrier that serves the community. And in Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass., mainland restaurant orders are handled by Cape Air (and its sister carrier, Nantucket Airlines), a New England-based outfit. The latter company says it was once responsible for bringing an entire pig roast over to Nantucket. “We also get requests for wedding cakes,” says Trish Lorino, a Cape Air and Nantucket Airlines vice president.
Not that having food delivered by plane is necessarily the ideal way to go, especially in Block Island. Despite the short flight times—Westerly is just 12 minutes away—the actual door-to-door timing on an order is more like 90 minutes, given the logistics of getting the food to and from the airport. (And once the order lands in Block Island, it is up to the customer to pick it up. Mr. Bendokas doesn’t continue the journey in his car.)
Most of New England Airlines’ restaurant-ordering regulars concede those “steaming” pints of Chinese food are more likely to arrive closer to room temperature, though they’re grateful in any case. “To be honest, Chinese food is good even when it’s cold,” says Brad Marthens, an island resident and proprietor of the Atlantic Inn, a popular island hotel.
Original article can be found here: http://www.wsj.com