Trend Watch: The Upscaling of Airport Restaurants and Retail

By Naomi Balagot


Derek Jeter may be considered a first-ballot MLB Hall of Famer, but he recently struck out in a big business deal. Jeter had reportedly signed a partnership with Concessions International to install an upscale bar, the Players’ Tribune Lounge, in Tampa Bay International Airport (TIA).

Jeter’s group bid on two of six packages and their weakest areas were in the Experience & Background and Interview categories. Bids were evaluated and ranked by a committee, and the TIA Board of Directors will have a final vote this month.

Simply put, other companies pitched better. Host International, the airport’s master concessionaire since 1971, claimed two packages. This company’s portfolio includes such local brands as Burger 21, Columbia Restaurant, Cigar City Brewing.

The other big winner was TPA Hospitality Partners, which has a portfolio that includes higher end options like Rumfish Grill, Four Green Fields and The Cafe by Mise en Place. Sounds pretty swanky!

Air of Sophistication

According to airport retail expert Alex Gluck, concessions are becoming more important as travelers become more sophisticated. “Hence, U.S. airport concession programs need to step up their games,” he advises.

I’m spoiled in my hometown airport, San Francisco International (SFO). It all started in 2011 when Terminal 2 reopened after big renovations that turned the smallest of SFO’s three domestic terminals into a culinary destination. Suddenly, all restaurants were required to serve hormone-free dairy products, sustainable seafood and cage-free eggs.

Lark Creek Grill offers linen napkins, and Iron Chef Cat Cora also has a full-service restaurant. Another standout is Napa Farms Market, which is a gourmet food shop, specialty coffee café, takeout food emporium and wine shop all rolled into one.

Keep in mind this is just in one terminal! There are other high-end dining options located throughout the airport.  

“I’m Just a Poor Burger, Nobody Loves Me”

Obviously, there are new opportunities for high-end foodservice operators in airports. However, there’s just as much of an opportunity for existing vendors.

Are you operating a basic grill, cafe or salad bar? Well, congrats! You have the coveted foot in the door of airport concessions, but this isn’t the time to be complacent.

Start thinking of ways to upscale your offerings. Offer healthier options more suitable for travel. For instance, Gluck reports on the growing popularity of airport “convenience” retail stores that offer made-to-order sandwiches and fountain drinks.

This isn’t to say that all food vendors have to upscale the classics. Some travelers will always want a slice of plain pizza or a Big Mac. However, major chains certainly have an opportunity to renovate existing locations, switch to digital menu boards, provide new and comfortable seating, and install other modern amenities like the Coca-Cola Freestyle.

Ultimately, a foodservice operation will reflect either positively or negatively on the airport’s image. Airports offer limited options in a relatively small radius. Management must choose wisely in selecting the best foodservice options, and that’s why the bidding process is highly competitive.

When it comes down to it, no traveler wants to have a dissatisfactory meal before they board a flight. They’re going to remember the restaurant and the airport!

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