Santan AirAsia

Thai basil chicken with rice, left, is among the meals served at Santan. Thirty percent of the restaurant’s menu comes from the menu that is served on AirAsia airlines.

Just what everyone thinks when they’re digging into an airline meal: Man, I wish I could order this even when I’m not flying.

At least that’s how AirAsia, a low-cost carrier based in Malaysia, hopes its customers feel. Last week, the airline opened the first restaurant inspired by its in-flight food offerings at a mall in Kuala Lumpur. Executives have ambitious plans for expansion, with a goal of opening five owned restaurants and 100 operated by franchisees “in global markets” in the next three to five years.

“Our dream is to have one in Times Square,” AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes told Reuters.

The restaurant, Santan, is named after coconut milk in Malaysia; that is also the name of the airline’s in-flight menu brand. It opened in conjunction with T&Co, a cafe. Catherine Goh, general manager of Santan and T&Co, told Reuters that 30% of the restaurant menu comes from the menu that is served in the air.

“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,” she said in an announcement. “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, suppliers; apart from creating new job opportunities with affordable franchising.”

Dishes that airline passengers might recognize include “Pak Nasser’s Nasi Lemak,” described as a coconut rice dish with chile sauce and a chicken stew. The meal includes fried anchovies, half a hard-boiled egg and nuts. Also on the Santan menu: “Uncle Chin’s Chicken Rice,” with roast chicken, seasoned rice and chile and ginger soy sauces. Meals hail from countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, and cost about 12 Malaysian ringgit (or about $2.90).

“It will bring people together through our shared love for ASEAN food under one roof and trigger wonderful memories from your trips with us to your favourite ASEAN countries and beyond,” Fernandes wrote in a LinkedIn post in September.

For years, airlines have consulted with celebrity chefs to spruce up their in-air menus. But taking inspiration from the air to the ground is less common. Thai Airways’ catering arm operates four restaurants, all at airports in Thailand.

But AirAsia’s CEO wants to reach way beyond air travelers. He hopes the restaurants will ultimately compete with American fast-food chains.

“A year ago, when I first conjured the idea of turning Santan and T&Co, our in-flight food choices, into a fast-food restaurant, everyone thought I was crazy,” he wrote in the LinkedIn post. “Just as they thought 18 years ago when I said I was starting an airline. Look how that turned out!”

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