Eating at a U.S. airport used to mean one of two choices: fast food or full-service chain. However, the same trends impacting the broader restaurant marketplace have made their way past airport security into food courts and terminals across the country. Diners on the go can now find locally sourced, freshly prepared, chef-inspired dishes at just about any major domestic airport. And, at some locations, they can even find chefs in the back of the house.
From James Beard–nominated One Flew South at Atlanta’s Hartsfield- Jackson to Nancy Silverton–helmed Campanile at LAX, the quality of full-service dining at airports has been elevated. In less than 45 minutes on average, a traveler can dine on a meal on par with the finest restaurants in the country, complete with craft cocktails and five-star service.
We view ourselves as restaurateurs who have a location in the airport versus airport operators,” says Rob Cernack, owner of Obrycki’s, a Chesapeake seafood concept inside Baltimore-Washington International (bwi). “We’re a restaurant first.”
Driving the shift are demands of travelers. Since the early 2000s, airport visitors have increasingly sought options that reflect their diverse needs and wants. Ignoring those wishes puts the airport industry at risk of seeing one of its significant sources of non-aeronautical revenue decline. Food and beverage sales accounted for $588 million in revenue for domestic airports in 2013, according to Airports Council International–North America (aci-na).
“All airports want to give their travelers what they want,” says Jay Kruisselbrink, vice president of development for Airmall, a developer and manager of retail stores and food and beverage concessions. “With the increased security, people are getting to airports earlier than ever. These are high-value customers. You have to cater to them with different levels of service, different levels of value, and different kinds of food.”
Another factor is that many airlines consider an airport’s mix of food and retail offerings when choosing hubs; an airport that travelers like connecting through is good for business, and restaurant concepts that provide passengers with a heightened experience are often in demand.
“Regardless of where we’re operating,” says Michael Coury, concept chef and partner at OTG Management, an airport food and beverage operator with more than 200 restaurants and retail boutiques in 10 airports across North America, “I want people to be able to experience what the dining scene there has to offer.”
The Business of Airport Dining
According to ACI-NA, the median age band of domestic airline passengers is 35–45 and the median household income band is $75,000 to $99,000. The number of U.S. residents taking to the skies is rising, too. In 2014, 657 million passengers took U.S. flights, up 2.2 percent from 2013, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics at the U.S. DOT.
It is no wonder, then, that airports and concessionaire partners such as Airmall, OTG, HMSHost, and others are actively developing concepts designed to cater to travelers with both the disposable income and time to enjoy a more upscale experience.
However, there are challenges. Costly airport vendor insurance requirements can make sourcing locally difficult. Real estate inside a terminal commands a premium price. HMSHost airport eateries, for example, average 900 square feet. Build-out costs can be 25–30 percent higher due to the logistics of moving people, materials, and equipment through a busy airport. And then, there are the inevitable dynamics of the transportation industry: Airlines move from one terminal to another, or abandon a hub altogether. Terminals close. Required security clearances can create staffing lags.
But the rewards can be great. Traffic is built-in and predictable, with fewer peaks and valleys compared with street locations. Business travelers with expense accounts may mean higher check averages. Operating hours are often more work-life balance friendly. Marketing costs are lower. And there is the added bonus of millions of travelers being exposed to your brand each year.
The Right Operating Strategy
“The process of opening in an airport can be a daunting task,” Kruisselbrink acknowledges. But there are options to ease the process and streamline efficiencies.
Restaurateurs who want to consider opening in a terminal can respond directly to requests for proposals issued by airport business development offices. Sites such as AviationNews.net and AirportRevenueNews.com regularly list development opportunities. With direct-leasing deals, the airport acts as a landlord, and all other facets of operating the restaurant are the responsibility of the owner. Dallas-Fort Worth International, Denver International, and Portland International all employ this model.
Another route into the airport is partnering with national airport-concessionaire companies like SSP America, HMS Host, and OTG. Traditionally, airports contract these groups to run all or most of their food and beverage programs via a master concessionaire model. However, as travelers’ demand for varied options increases, airports such as Los Angeles International are contracting with several prime concessionaire companies to diversify offerings. The concessionaire companies are diversifying as well; their portfolios now include a mix of national, regional, and proprietary brands.
A third alternative for opening a restaurant inside an airport is the developer model, which closely resembles operations in a shopping center. A firm like Airmall, Westfield Concessions, or Marketplace Development acts as a third-party retail development and management partner. For example, developers run the concessions throughout BWI and at Chicago O’Hare International Airport’s international terminal.
Other variations include joint ventures and sub-leases with minority businesses certified as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, which is designed to ensure that minority-owned companies participate in federally funded transportation projects.
Additionally, there are often hybrid operations that embrace all or a combination of models to some degree. To get a sense of how each of these approaches plays out in real life, FSR talked with several players who have found success bringing upscale dining to airports.
When One Flew South opened its doors in 2008, travelers didn’t know what to make of the “Southernational” concept. Many thought it was an airline travel lounge or some other type of private club.
Word of mouth soon changed that perception. Today, the restaurant is one of the most-awarded eateries in Atlanta, including a 2014 Outstanding Service semi-finalist nod from the James Beard Foundation.
From its 800-square-foot kitchen, a three-man line (protein, pantry, hot veggie) is overseen by chef de cuisine Andrew Tabb Jr. and pushes out up to 40 orders an hour. And these aren’t simple orders. One Flew South’s menu is made up of a mix of guest favorites such as a two- to four-day cured Thyme Roasted Pork Belly and rotating seasonal items like the Pumpkin Maple Leaf Duck Breast, which was found on the menu in November.
“As God grows stuff, we serve it,” explains Reggie Washington, operations manager. “We’re able to do that because we have a well-run team. We don’t hire cooks. We hire aspiring chefs.”
Having a well-run team is a key component to One Flew South’s success. Job descriptions call for a minimum of three to five years experience working in an upscale-dining restaurant, because in this 2,800-square-foot restaurant—where time and space are limited—there is little room for inexperience or inefficiency.
That reality plays out in several ways inside One Flew South. Washington’s office is a desktop computer located in a corner of the dining room next to the bar. Produce and proteins are delivered every other day and stored down the hallway in coolers affectionately called The Dungeon. Menu development requires thinking about how the same ingredient can be used in different dishes: The same kind of rice used in One Flew South’s 20-plus sushi dishes is used as the base for its popular Salmon Hot Pot entrée.
All of these elements come together to create an upscale-dining experience specifically designed for the airport traveler.
“Our regulars count on us to be the one constant in their travel experiences,” says bartender Tiffanie Barriere. “They’re busy. They’re stressed. They want to come here and enjoy good food in a casual environment.”
executive chef: Duane Nutter
operator: Pot Likker Creation (Jackmont Hospitality/Global Concessions joint venture)
cuisine: New American
The crab cakes at Obrycki’s have been a Maryland institution since 1944. Even Oprah is a fan, and more than 20,000 are sold via mail order each year. But for a fresh crab cake, one requires a boarding pass or a friend who works at BWI.
Four years ago, Chef/owner Rob Cernak and his family decided to close Obrycki’s waterfront Fells Point location in favor of focusing on its two airport restaurants, one at BWI and another at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. The second site closed in 2014, after United Airlines dehubbed from Cleveland International, effectively closing down Concourse D, where the eatery was located.
The experience in Cleveland did not sour Chef Cernak on the airport business, but it did teach him an important lesson.
“You can’t forget you are at the mercy of others,” Chef Cernak says. “You are a small part of a very large organization, which can affect your business in ways you can’t control.”
Still, business is doing well at BWI. The restaurant grosses $4.6 million in annual sales. Checks average $24.84 with alcohol. And Obrycki’s continues to make critics’ lists of best dining in airports.
Chef Cernak credits that continued success to a focus on keeping the menu fresh and hiring the right staff.
“I’ll hire people without experience because attitude trumps all,” he says. “I need people able to work a high-volume, 10-hour shift with a smile on their faces. Everything else can be trained.”
Obrycki’s remains a family business. Chef Cernak, his sister Cheri Cernak, and his son, Rob Cernak Jr., make up the culinary-development team. They revise the menu on a quarterly basis to keep pace with culinary trends, and decisions are strongly influenced by the realities of storage constraints.
“Our mainline distributor delivers three times per week … seafood at least five times a week … most beer, two or three times,“ Chef Cernak says. “The only items delivered once a week are paper, chemicals, and liquor. And even with that, we buy from multiple liquor distributors so delivery dates are staggered.”
The complexity of the sourcing means there are times Obrycki’s sells out of popular items.
“Delays can’t always be anticipated,” he says. “The upside is, although we compete with other operators on our concourse, we are friendly competitors and lend and borrow among ourselves.”
executive chef: Rob Cernak
A traveler would be hard-pressed to point out the difference between eating at one of the two Ike’s inside the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport (msp) and eating at Ike’s in downtown Minneapolis—despite the fact that HMSHost licenses and operates the former. Eighty percent of the menu is the same. Staff from the original Ike’s regularly audits the HMSHost operation to ensure it meets brand standards. The Weekender Bloody Mary is a bestseller at both. Servers at the airport dress in waist jackets and ties as do their counterparts downtown. Even the décor is similar: an upscale bar, heavy on dark wood.
“It’s important to us that we are delivering the same experience as the Ike’s is street-side,” says Doug Draper, director of adult beverage and bar development at HMSHost. “We didn’t want a watered-down version.”
Where the two operations differ is breakfast. Ike’s at MSP offers a full-service menu beginning at 6 a.m. to accommodate early travelers. HMSHost’s culinary team developed this menu with input from Ike’s outside culinary team. Offerings include fresh-squeezed juices, a limited breakfast menu offered throughout the day, grilled-to-order steaks, and burgers.
“People gravitate toward a burger,” Draper explains. “It makes them feel comfortable.” Burgers, along with tacos and wings, are popular items for HMSHost across concepts, dayparts, and airports.
By partnering with Ike’s, HMSHost is able to deliver against two categories that airport development and concession managers ask for: upscale and regional. The higher-end menu and bar offerings attract business travelers, many who use the restaurant as a meeting place during layovers. Locals who know the brand also make up a significant portion of the traffic.
“We don’t want people to say that’s good [food] for an airport,” Draper says. “We want them to walk away feeling as if they had an ultimately superior product.”
executive chef: Corey Rose
The dry-aged steaks served at Prime Tavern are sourced from the same supplier used by the famed Porter House New York. This is no coincidence or bit of luck. Chef Michael Lomonaco wrote the menu for both. He also trained the original staff at Prime to ensure the service quality was equal to that of other fine-dining restaurants in the city.
Chef Lomonaco’s involvement in the development of an upscale airport restaurant was considered something of a novelty—and a risk—five years ago. OTG launched its chef-driven development approach in 2008 at John F. Kennedy International, partnering with Buddakan’s Michael Schulson to revamp Deep Blue Sushi, with Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr on the menu of Brasserie La Vie, and with Alexandra Raij on Piquillo.
Today such pairings are commonplace. Chef Lomonaco is one of 14 New York–based chef-consultants whom OTG management worked with to develop concepts inside LaGuardia’s Delta Terminal, aka the Delta NY Experience. The developer has rolled out similar programs at Toronto Pearson, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National—each highlighting ingredients and cooking styles native to those markets. A sixth similarly upscale-dining experience is slated to open inside Newark Liberty International Airport within the next 12 months. More than 20 local chefs are expected to participate.
“When we first started, chefs were working with us as a matter of trust,” says Michael Coury, head concept chef for OTG Management. “The chef community is small. They knew me and believed me when I said, ‘Look, this is going to be a true restaurant.’”
Chef Coury was true to his word. Prime Tavern offers specials every night using ingredients that its chefs source from the local farmers’ market three times a week. In fact, the restaurant sources locally as much as possible, even down to the milk it uses.
Today, Prime is recognized as one of the best airport restaurants in the world. Management is regularly flooded with résumés from waitstaff and kitchen staff with prior fine-dining experience.
“Real hospitality is happening here,” Chef Coury says. “Our passion for food comes through.”
executive chef: Lou DiGiovanni