Airports unchain food choices by adding local fare

The food revolution at airports continues as more of them bring in local restaurants to upgrade the dining options for hungry air travelers. The SweetWater Draft House & Grill, featuring beers of a local microbrewery, opens today at Atlanta's...


The food revolution at airports continues as more of them bring in local restaurants to upgrade the dining options for hungry air travelers.

The SweetWater Draft House & Grill, featuring beers of a local microbrewery, opens today at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport. In late November, the first of three Chickie's & Pete's, known locally for crab fries, chicken wings, mussels and beer, is scheduled to open at Philadelphia's airport.

Once upon a time, hungry air travelers were faced with picking their own poison: in-flight meals or food in airport restaurants.

That's not true any more. The move to more local restaurants is part of a broader trend of serving higher quality, healthier fare and replacing the tired menus of some national chains with more appealing offerings.

"There was a trend toward national brands in the 1990s, but now there's a desire for more balance with local brands," says Pat Banducci, senior vice president of HMS Host, a concessionaire at 102 airports worldwide, including 73 in North America.

Local restaurants make up 20% to 40% of all eateries at most big U.S. airports, Banducci says. He expects that to grow to 50% within five years.

The shift to local restaurants began largely after 9/11. People are spending more time in airports, checking in hours before flights to meet security requirements.

They're demanding something different, including better and healthier food. They're looking for quality takeout food, because most airlines stopped serving in-flight meals after 9/11 for security and economic reasons. And airports are also pushing for change.

"Airports want to be able to distinguish themselves from other airports," Banducci says. "They want passengers to know what city they're in -- not in a generic airport."

Julie Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, agrees: "It's important that the local flavor comes through in our concessions for the benefit of our customers and for business owners in the community."

The new buzzword is "sense of place," says Pauline Armbrust, CEO of the trade publication Airport Revenue News. "Airports want to reflect what's going on in their community from a food standpoint."

An appetizing mixture

An airport that's a hub for connecting flights needs a mixture of national and local brands, says James DeCock, the food and beverage manager at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport.

"Having local brands operate in your airport can be a challenge if the local operator is not prepared for the large customer volume," he says, "On the other hand, some local operators take great pride in their brand and are more committed to showcasing it to the airport traveler than the large national brand."

Dine Boston, at Boston Logan airport, goes a step further to showcase local cuisine. It has a visiting chef program and invites local culinary wizards to come up with new menu items. For the next three months, Dine Boston will feature the food of Chez Henri, one of the city's finest restaurants.

Some local airport restaurants have become so successful they have become chains, expanding to other airports. Harlon's Bar-B-Que, which began as a converted gas station in Houston in 1977, for example, is located at both big Houston airports, as well as Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin airports. Regional chains such as Gordon Biersch, which opened its first brewery restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1988, have expanded to other regions and various airports. Biersch is located at 10 airports, including five in California and two in the Washington, D.C., area.

What fliers have to say

Many frequent fliers welcome the trend to local fare. Richard Glaser, the vice president of sales for an importer, says, "It's great to see airports start to get more local flavor." The national chains tend to serve "the same mediocre food priced much higher than they charge for the same product at their non-airport locations," says Glaser, of Brookline, Mass.

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