By Steve Baltin
December 7, 2017
As Monica Molinaro and I make our way to the upper deck bar of the two-story refurbished 747 that hosts the Pan Am Experience deep in the San Fernando Valley we are greeted by a smiling crew member clearly in her 20s. Making conversation we ask how long she has been with the company. Without missing a beat she smiles and says, “1963.”
Welcome to the Pan Am Experience, where guests are transported back in time to the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when flying was a glamorous and luxurious joy and Pan Am was an elite airline. The Pan Am Experience, created by Anthony Toth and Talaat Captan and launched in October of 2014 for 32 guests, starts when guests walk into a museum of old aviation memorabilia and make their way to the ticket counter to “check in” for their L.A. to London flight.
The experience kicks into high gear though when guests are escorted onto the 747 for their dinner, which consists of a five-course meal that feels like first class back in the day. Guests are given a choice of an entrée of chicken, pasta with vegetables or chateaubriand that is actually carved at the guest’s seat. Additionally the meal includes bread, dessert, cheese plate, fruit and an appetizer selection of caprese salad or shrimp cocktail, as well as open bar.
The food and service are excellent, but the three-hour plus dinner is not really about the food. It is about the James Bond movie playing silently on the plane, the ‘70s magazines the staff provides guests, the old perfumes they sell to customers, the prop cigarettes and luggage tags you get as souvenirs and the fashion shows between courses.
What makes the Pan Am Experience so special and so fun is the attention to detail and authenticity. Nicole Garrabrant is an actress and part of the crew at the Pan Am Experience. According to Garrabrant, the authenticity comes from the details.
“When we got hired we have an orientation session with this woman named Barbara Norberg, who was an actual Pan Am stewardess,” Garrabrant says. “Not only does she teach us what we’d be doing during our experience, but she told us all about how it used to be back in the day, all the requirements. So she was able to really just train us so we got everything down to a tee, so we could not only serve well, but that way we could answer questions well about the history of Pan Am, what it was really like back in the day.”
Given the open bar there is a definite party vibe on the “flight,” which Garrabrant says can even lead to passengers getting dressed up and included in the fashion show of Pan Am uniforms through the years. As much fun as all that is though, her favorite experiences come from the passengers reliving their youth or connecting with family members.
“One of the best parts about this job is seeing grown men or elderly people, who used to work for Pan Am, come on the plane and they’re crying because Pan Am was their second home back in the day,” she says. “And when they come on the plane and see it looks exactly like how it used to it brings back all these old memories for them and they’ll just sob their eyes out. There’s this one gentleman that sticks out in my head. He was a pilot for Pan Am and he was maybe in his 80s and I just remember him just bawling his eyes out when he stepped on the plane.”
The spot on replication is a testament to the two founders, Toth and Captan, and their own history with Pan Am. “I flew Pan Am myself for many years, I was a rare one million mile collector of Pan Am,”Captan says. “But I was never a collector like Anthony was. He was an obsessive person when it comes to collecting all the memorabilia. And I love aviation and I love the history and the retro, so that’s the combination that really worked.”
According to Captan it took them a few months to perfect the formula for the mix of food and entertainment and details that make the Pan Am Experience a smashing success, but once they did, the event has been largely sold out since it began. And The Pan Am Experience recently made national headlines when model Chrissy Teigen celebrated her thirty-second birthday on board the Pacoima-based jet.
With the success, Toth and Captan have definite expansion plans, looking at Vegas as the next spot. “The idea for us is to really go to Vegas and place the entire 747 right on the strip,” he says. “And basically cater for just a hundred people.”
One thing that makes the Pan Am Experience so special is the intimacy. Customers get to know the crew over the course of the dinner and they almost feel like friends by the end. Captan says for that reason the Pan Am Experience will never be intended for large audiences.
“A hundred people will be a great number for us to cater and do a really nice job and have these people have a really great experience,” he says. “We want to keep it small, we want to keep it private, we want to keep it very unique.”