Denver Int'l Airport Food Options Become More Appealing

Nov. 2--Richard Wilson isn't in the habit of eating when he flies.

"It's usually price and time constraints that keep me from eating at the airport," said Wilson, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas.

Even so, he was tempted by the choices at Denver International Airport's restaurants when he flew in for a convention this week.

It's now possible to start the day with strawberry-covered Belgian waffles ($7.95 at Pour La France Café & Bar) and end it with rib-eye steak in lemon-butter caper sauce, mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables ($19.99 at Chef Jimmy's Bistro & Spirits) with a glass of cabernet sauvignon ($6, Chef Jimmy's).

As airports require earlier check-ins and airlines offer fewer in-flight meals, travelers have become captive audiences. As a result, business is booming at airport concessions.

Last year, DIA's food-and-beverage businesses generated $78 million in revenue, more than double the $32.3 million they contributed in 1995. In the process, they are helping the cash-strapped airlines that serve DIA.

It isn't necessarily cheap for consumers. DIA allows eateries at the airport to charge 10 percent more than a comparable street location.

Airport officials credit higher concessions revenue with helping DIA bring Southwest Airlines to Denver. The low-cost carrier had said for years that DIA was too expensive. But because its revenue from non-airline sources has increased, DIA has been able to gradually lower the landing fees it charges airlines.

"The airlines -- need as much help as we can give them," said Lisa Torres, acting concessions manager at DIA.

Concessionaire Tom Ryan is doing his best.

"I think travel business is back," he said. "People are spending a lot more time in the airports." As chief concept and marketing officer for Quiznos, Ryan cashed in on the trend by adding the high-end Chef Jimmy's to the company's portfolio of airport sandwich shops.

Since 2001, airlines have cut back on the amount of food served in flight, leaving room for concessionaires to fill the void.

Frontier Airlines serves only beverages on short flights, for example, and light sandwiches on longer flights.

United Airlines also serves only beverages on short flights and complimentary meals on longer flights. In addition, on some flights it sells snack boxes and fresh salads for $5 each. United said between 15 percent and 30 percent of its customers buy their food onboard, depending on the length of the flight.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, DIA asked concessionaires to stock grab- and-go items that travelers could buy and take onto their flights. Since then, airport officials have also been encouraging concessionaires to make their offerings more appealing and convenient.

Pour La France on Concourse B redesigned its grab-and-go area last year.

"It's a part of their business that just continues to grow," Torres said.

Chef Jimmy's added wine pairings to its menu, boosting wine sales significantly, Ryan said. The restaurant sells wine by the glass and by the bottle.

"Giving fresh and healthy choices is one of the biggest keys here," said Niels van Leeuwen, vice president of operations of Skyport Companies, which manages airport Wolfgang Puck Express, Cantina Grill Express and Pour La France locations.

As contracts expire and demand increases, DIA is putting out to bid a number of restaurant locations around the airport. About 3,000 potential entrepreneurs have expressed interest in having an airport concession, Torres said.

The attractions are numerous. DIA is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and draws lots of foot traffic. In regional sales, the airport's McDonald's restaurants are ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3; the Steak Escape is No. 1.

With Southwest arriving on Concourse C on Jan. 3, DIA will also soon be taking bids for new eateries and retail on that concourse to meet higher demand.