Airports around the country have stepped up their food and beverage offerings in recent years, leaning into local brands and providing more upscale options. But is it worth it for a concept to open airport outposts? And what should brands expect once they do?
“It’s really a marketing strategy for us,” says Kevin Reynolds, managing partner of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprise’s Lettuce Fly division, which partners with a concessionaire to operate 11 airport restaurants around the U.S. Tourists often like to know they’re eating at a local spot, he notes, while locals enjoy stopping at their neighborhood eateries on the way out of town.
Read on to see what Reynolds and other operators with an airport presence suggest keeping in mind.
Most U.S. airports host outreach programs for restaurant operators twice a year, sometimes quarterly, that explain the process of securing airport units, says Reynolds, who worked for a concessionaire before joining Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You. “They’re always actively seeking to educate,” he says. “They want it to be fair.”
Supply chain issues
Getting ingredients into the airport requires, of course, another layer of security compared to traditional restaurants. “We faced some extra hurdles, because of our vendors,” says Rick Bayless, whose Tortas Frontera has three locations at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. “We work with local farms as much as possible, so there was a big learning curve on the path to ensuring they could actually get their produce and meat to the airport—not to mention keep up with demand. … For that, we had to find a third-party distributor, one that we could ensure the integrity and safety of the farm-to-table supply chain.”
For restaurants already feeling a labor pinch, the situation can be even trickier at airports, as not everybody wants to pass through a daily security screening before heading to the line. Plus, the nature of airports means 5 a.m. openings and late-night closings. “You walk through TSA every time you come for work,” operator Adam Sappington of the Country Cat in Portland, Ore., told Eater. “That alone is kind of a mental space for people to get past. People don’t say, ‘I want to be a chef so I’m going to go to an airport and cook.’”
The importance of adding breakfast
If your concept doesn’t already offer morning eats, they’re a must to capture those early flyers. Cava Grill, for example, added breakfast bowls and yogurt parfaits to its menu at Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C., even though the Mediterranean chain doesn’t typically serve breakfast.
The little things are less small
Operating at the airport requires plenty of patience, largely because of the security issues, Reynolds says. If, say, the fryer goes down during the lunch rush, you can’t just call in anyone to fix it; it has to be someone with TSA clearance. “Everything’s just a little bit harder to do,” he says.
A boon to brand awareness
Despite the hassles of running airport concepts, operators say these units can be invaluable in raising brand awareness among new crops of consumers. Bayless, for example, says he gets more social media feedback from visitors to his airport counters than his standalone concepts. “My social media mentions are packed with people whose whole travel experience has been ‘rescued’ by a torta and a well-balanced margarita,” he says. “I think it will be on my tombstone: 'He made good food at the airport.'”