Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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The Surprising New World of Airport Dining
October 23, 2014 --On a Wednesday evening in suburban Washington, folks sat at a cozy wine bar, clicking glasses, gesticulating with silverware and grazing on small plates of appetizers and charcuterie. Diners and drinkers wearing everything from jeans and sneakers to smart dresses and heels arrived and departed lazily on this particular pre-election Hump Day not far from the national levers of power.
The mise-en-scène was notable because of the venue: at the top of a bank of escalators in Concourse B at Washington's Dulles Airport, just steps from two wings of departure gates buzzing with travelers queuing for flights to New York, Dallas, Frankfurt and London. Everyone visiting at Vino Volo, a chain of boites created specifically to operate inside airports, was waiting on a flight and counting down the minutes to departure.
The tableau demonstrates how much airport dining has changed, especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Like it or not, we spend more time in airports because we can never be sure how long it takes to clear security and how reliably flights are running. With the chance of an in-flight meal slim — and usually unpalatable when it is on offer — we transform our airport "dwell time" into meal time.
The concessionaires that dominate airport retail have responded with gusto. They've populated airport concourses with national burger chains and outposts of local BBQ joint, and cut franchising deals with star chefs and local coffee houses. If it's being eaten on Main Street, chances are you'll find some version of it on the main concourse of the airport, too. That's led to a huge uptick in airport food revenue.
The median gross food and beverage sale per passenger jumped 14 percent between 2009 and 2012, according to the Airport Councils North America. The FAA says licensing fees and rent from food and beverage outlets contribute more than 7 percent of an airport's non-aeronautic revenue. And dining outlets ring huge sales from tiny airport spaces. One example: a McDonald's at Dulles Airport racked up $2.3 million in sales in 2013 from just 875 square feet of space. That's startling since the average standalone McDonald's restaurant is about 4,000 square feet and grosses just $2.5 million annually.
If you somehow missed the transformation of airport dining as you hustled between flights, consider the latest ploy from HMS Host, the $2.7 billion giant of travel food service. Consciously mimicking a promotion mounted in major cities across the nation, it's christened October "airport restaurant month" and created special menus for 26 dining outlets in 20 U.S. and Canadian airports.
"It's a great time to be in the restaurant business," says Frank Sickelsmith, a vice president of HMS Host. "And we're restaurateurs who just happen to do business in an airport."
The remarkable scope of today's on-the-fly dining is reflected in the HMS Host roster of 300 brands and 2,000 restaurants at more than 110 North American airports. Grabbing a latte at an airport Starbucks? That's HMS Host. A pretzel from Auntie Anne's? That's HMS. A quick pizza and salad at California Pizza Kitchen? That's HMS, as are airport outlets of Chick-fil-A, Outback Steakhouse and Gordon Biersch. It has also brought celebrity chefs such as Rick Bayless, Todd English and Lorena Garcia to the airport and opened airport outlets of dozens of popular local microbreweries.
Maryland-based HMS Host is hardly alone in feeding us at the airport, of course. Atlanta-based Concessions International offers food service in more than half a dozen airports. Delaware North, of Buffalo, N.Y., operates from more than three dozen airports, works with the Food Network, and opens bars branded with the Heineken name. The SSP Group is represented at airports in 29 countries. Its U.S. division fronts airport branches of Einstein's Bagels, Buffalo Wild Wings, Peet's Coffee, Panda Express and the Palm steakhouses.
There's also a place at the airport for the mavericks. San Francisco-based Vino Volo is an independent and doesn't franchise, yet it now pours fine wine and slices artisan salami at more than two dozen airports. Rick Blatstein's OTG Management came out of Philadelphia and transformed the entire concept of airport dining. OTG's nearly seamless integration of dining and at-the-gate touchscreen ordering at JetBlue's Terminal 5 in New York's Kennedy Airport in 2008 was such a hit that Delta Air Lines promptly hired Blatstein to remake food service at its terminals in Minneapolis and New York's LaGuardia Airport. And United Airlines hired OTG last month to "re-imagine" dining options at its hub at Terminal C in Newark Airport.
What's odd about all the action at the airport table, however, is how closely it now mirrors the dining landscape of the rest of our lives. For all the upmarket options populating concourses and terminals —enotecas, salad bars, fancy steakhouses and specialty dining fronted by beloved local chefs — more than 40 percent of the food and beverage outlets at the airport are national brands. Fast food/quick service places such as Burger King and Sbarro command more than 44 percent of the spending, according to the Airports Council.
And what we eat at airports hasn't changed all that much, either.
"The No. 1 food items are still burgers, pizza and a turkey sandwich if it's ready-made," says Sickelsmith of HMS Host. "Portable works. Even at [airport] steakhouses, burgers are the most ordered menu item."
But that shouldn't surprise us, Sickelsmith explains. "If burgers and pizzas are No. 1 streetside, it is logical that they'd be No. 1 at the airport, too."
And what we're likely to see and eat at airports in the years ahead won't look a lot different that what we eat near our office or at a leisurely dinner. Sushi will be better represented, for example. HMS Host even developed its own sushi concept, called Wicker Park at Chicago O'Hare Airport and Umaizuchi at Honolulu International. "Shockingly good sushi," raved one recent Yelp reviewer about Wicker Park.
Major airport food service companies are developing additional Mexican food options, too. Noodle shops, already a staple at Asian airports, are a coming category, say some U.S. airport executives. Additional higher-end, artisanal burger, pizza and sandwich concepts are inevitable. Regional craft breweries, already an airport staple, will be even more omnipresent because travelers like the opportunity to sample a local brew before catching a flight. And Harriett Baskas' Stuck at the Airport blog noted earlier this month that food trucks have opened at the airport in Portland, Oregon, the city that popularized food carts.
One thing you might not see more of, however, are so-called "indulgence" concepts. Not only has the healthy-eating trend made them less popular, calorie-laden desserts are a much harder airport sell.
"Desserts are tough," explains Sickelsmith. "There's not enough volume to offset the high rents you pay at airport locations.”
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