Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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What's Happening at Airports to Feed Us On The Fly
June 2, 2016 -- I ran smack into an insanely long line the other day passing through Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
What's the big deal, you say? There are security lines everywhere, especially at big airports such as LAX or DFW or any other three-letter hell that dominates the lives of business travelers.
Here's the thing, though: This particular insanely long line was at a food stall, Tortas Frontera, created by Chicago-based Rick Bayless, the nation's best-known and most admired Mexican restaurateur.
"Can't get this stuff in St. Louis," explained Robbie Ledgerson, a Missouri-based business traveler who says he builds extra time into his schedule to enjoy a meal at Tortas Frontera.
Not far from that long line of flyers dreaming of a Mexican open-faced sandwich, guacamole and salsa, however, I found Cynthia Zimmerman. She was hurriedly buying a muffin and a bottle of water at one of O'Hare's faux Parisian bakeries.
"Five minutes to get to the gate," she said, stuffing her purchase into her pocketbook. "Got stuck in a slow security line."
Welcome to the newest new normal at airports around the country. Some business travelers show up hours early to avoid getting stuck in a security line and have plenty of "dwell time" to enjoy a leisurely meal. And some are harried flyers running late, desperate to race through the terminal, pick up sustenance and catch their flight.
"This is life. This is air travel today," suggests Rick Blatstein, chief executive of OTG Management, which operates restaurants, wine bars and food markets in a dozen airports in the United States and Canada. "Airports are a lifestyle, not a commodity."
The problem, of course, is that the airport lifestyle these days is hard to calibrate. With the Transportation Security Administration making schedules a crap shoot, we never seem to know whether we've got enough time for a meal or even to grab a snack between flights.
But here's some good news: Airport operators, concessionaires and even third-party app developers are rushing to our aid. They're busily cooking up new ways to feed us on the fly or to fill our airport down time.
Consider the new Dashing Dishes option from HMSHost, the multinational company that operates in more than 120 airports worldwide. The program promises a curated menu of frequent-flying classics that can be delivered seven minutes after you order.
"We can produce the dishes in five minutes," explains HMSHost chief commercial officer Jeff Yablun. "But we'd like a little cushion so we can deliver on our promise."
According to Yablun, Dashing Dishes will allow time-pressed business travelers to quickly select from and pay for "six to ten" menu items posted at the restaurant's entrance. You can pick up your order seven minutes later at a specially marked Dashing Dishes counter.
"It recognizes the need of the moment," he explains, and leans heavily on sandwiches, salads and burgers, which he calls "the mainstay items" of grab-and-go airport cuisine.
As of last week, an HMSHost spokesman says Dashing Dishes was already in place at the O'Hare branches of Romano's Macaroni Grill and Chili's as well as Wicker Park, HMSHost's proprietary sushi restaurant. It is scheduled to debut shortly at Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul with another dozen airports under consideration.
"Obviously, if this works well, we'll find a way to build it into all of our ongoing markets," Yablan says. "We already have the menus chosen."
Time-pressed flyers have another way to secure food fast while running through an airport. A new app called Grab permits travelers to view menus and place pre-paid orders at participating airport restaurants. You receive a notification when the order is ready and pick it up a designated Grab counter.
Launched last year by three former Continental Airlines executives, Grab already offers mobile ordering at dozens of restaurants in a baker's dozen of airports nationwide. Among the participating locations: DeSano Pizza in Charleston, South Carolina; Skewers by Morimoto at LAX; Lefty's Colorado Trail Grille at Denver International; Bar Symon at Pittsburgh, and Zona Fresca at Fort Lauderdale.
The app also features directories of food and service concessions at 40 other airports around the nation where mobile ordering isn't available. "We want to provide convenience and we want to be ubiquitous at the airport," says Grab chief executive Mark Bergsrud.
At the moment, Grab works with restaurants and food outlets operated by Delaware North and Paradies Lagardere, two large players in what Bergsrud calls "a very fragmented industry." He hopes to add other airports and more dining options over time and integrate Grab's technology into any app or platform that reaches flyers. HMSHost, which is already testing its own flyer-focused app, says it expects to work with Grab, too.
"We want to be everywhere travelers want us to be," Bergsrud says. "If they want to order through their existing airline and airport app or their travel management app, we want Grab's [capability] in those apps."
But what if you've breezed through the security checkpoint and want to spend some time having a nice meal before or between flights? That's where Blatstein of OTG Management is placing his bet.
He recently signed up two more airlines — United Airlines at Bush Intercontinental hub in Houston and American Airlines at its Philadelphia hub — for a formula he debuted in 2008 in JetBlue Airways' Terminal 5 at New York's Kennedy Airport. The concept was refined for Delta Air Lines and nailed with a dining remake at Newark International's Terminal C.
Blatstein brings in well-known local chefs to create airport restaurants, augments them with his proprietary Cibo-branded grab-and-go markets and ties it all together with iPads at the gates and boarding areas so you can order right from your seat. In Houston, that'll mean thousands of iPads and chefs like Roland Laurenzo, whose family brought fajitas to town a generation ago. In Philadelphia, it'll be Kevin Sbraga, a winner of the Top Chef television show and owner of the city's Fat Ham restaurant.
"Chefs are the new rock stars," Blatstein insists. "And they are real draws, especially at the airport, which is your first and last impression you get of a city."
But what about time? Isn't the pressure of long security lines and shattered schedules anathema to a pleasant dining experience?
"If you need speed, burgers are always big on any menu and sushi is enormous — and I'll happily sell you a bottle of water in our gourmet markets," he explains. "But once you get through security, your experience starts. We want to be the oasis."