Airport awards concession deal to new group

June 22, 2007

A bitter dispute over one of Orlando International Airport's most lucrative concession contracts came to an end Wednesday when a team of bidders from Spain and Atlanta beat the local team that has held the contract for the past decade.

Much was made of the losing team's hometown ties -- a point it used to appeal to members of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority to accept its proposal, which fell about $20,000 short of the $2.2 million winning bid. At stake is a contract valued at $350 million in revenue over 15 years.

The group known as Areas/Hojeij -- a partnership between a subsidiary of a Barcelona, Spain-based concession company, an Atlanta food company and two Orlando restaurants -- will take over the newly renovated food court and restaurant space in Airside 3 next year.

"We're very excited," said Carol Hojeij, who owns Hojeij Branded Foods Inc. "We'll make them proud and have a quality operation."

The defeated team, known as Orlando Hometown Concessions LLC, is a partnership of restaurateur Johnny Rivers, concession owner Tyrone Nabbie and McDonald's owner-operator James Gilchrist. It put up a tenacious battle.

The team appealed a staff recommendation against them and challenged Carol Hojeij's federal certification from the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program as a woman-owned business.

Airport Executive Director Steve Gardner overruled the challenges.

As a last resort Wednesday, the local group offered pleas in their favor from a congressional aide, the local leader of the NAACP and other political powerhouses in the African-American community.

The majority of the authority's board members weren't swayed.

Authority Chairman Jeffry Fuqua called the testimony "compelling" but ultimately unrelated to the question at hand: Which team would generate the most revenue for the airport?

The final vote was 4-2 -- a rarity for the authority, which often passes staff recommendations unanimously, with no public discussion.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Jacqueline Bradley cast the dissenting votes.

"The two proposals are pretty much equal," Dyer said, adding that he does "buy into the notion" that local companies should be favored.

Bradley raised questions about the financial security of Wendy's, the hamburger chain proposed by Areas/Hojeij. Wendy's owners said earlier this week that they might sell the struggling chain. Hometown Concessions' bid included McDonald's.

Nabbie, who still holds other concession contracts at the airport, offered little comment after the vote. "Basically, we trusted in the process," he said. "We did our very best."

The authority did award Rivers a smaller contract Wednesday for snack bars in Airside 1 and Airside 3. And Gilchrist already operates two McDonald's at the airport.

The Rev. Randolph Bracy Jr., president of the local NAACP, said he thought the bidding process for the large airside contract was unfair, with "rules that were bent to favor one [bidder] over another."

But even Dyer, who voted against Areas/Hojeij, said he discounted that assertion.

Gardner, the airport executive director, said he "resented" the insinuation of anything untoward. He said the decision, in large part, came down to the airport's need to prove to its airline customers that it was willing to make a tough decision by turning down the politically connected Hometown Concessions in favor of a group that promised it more money.

A track record of sound financial decisions is important to the airport as it negotiates new leases with the airlines, which want to retain control over the airport's spending. Gardner wants the airport authority to have the final say over its budget.

"One of the things we want is more control, or better control, of our airport," Gardner said. "We really need to convince them [airlines] of our responsibility and make tough decisions from time to time."

CONTACT: Beth Kassab can be reached at or 407-420-5448.

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