Forget New York. Forget Vegas. Among celebrity chefs, the hot spot for fine dining is . . . the airport.
From Newark to Atlanta, from Los Angeles to Virginia, the list of chefs adding airports to their restaurant portfolios reads like a Who’s Who of the cooking world: Rick Bayless, Alain Ducasse, Cat Cora, Michael Voltaggio, Mike Isabella, Carla Hall.
Soon, the dining options at Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport, home to United Airlines, will include offerings from no fewer than four chefs with Michelin stars, one of dining’s most prestigious awards. Concepts include a “surf bar and sushi oasis” from Josh Capon and French country fare from Alex Guarnaschelli.
“The traveling public is demanding better food,” said Frank Sickelsmith, vice president of adult beverage and restaurant development for HMS Host, the Bethesda, Md.-based company that helped pioneer the celebrity chef trend with Todd English’s Southwestern spin on the steak house, Bonfire. “We have become a foodie culture.”
The desire for good food has always existed but didn’t always line up when it came to the fare offered in U.S. airports. Pre-packaged sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers and maybe a slice of greasy pizza from a generic vendor was the best a traveler could hope for. The phrase “airport food” came to denote a certain kind of fare. And it wasn’t the kind that made food critics swoon.
These days however, a traveler passing through John F. Kennedy International Airport can enjoy grilled salmon with black bean silk, tempura rock shrimp, a roasted Anaheim pepper tamale accompanied by jicama salad with a coconut-lime vinaigrette at Bonfire, or partake in cumin-yogurt marinated chicken souvlaki at Mike Isabella’s Kapnos Taverna at Reagan National Airport.
“We’re more savvy as travelers,” said Sean Aziz, senior director of communications at OTG, the company behind the revamp at Newark as well as new eateries at National. “People want to know who’s cooking their food, where it came from, how it was raised,” he said. Aziz calls it “conscious dining.”
Ben Rababy, vice president of United Concessions Group, has noticed the trend. He remembers the days when an upgrade was a national chain with sit-down service.
“They’ve really upped the ante,” he said. “Now it’s chef- driven, locally sourced. It all comes from what people are demanding.”
“We’re big believers that we’ll be more financially successful if we give travelers what they want instead of forcing them to take what we have,” said Steve Baker, vice president of business administration at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Reagan National and Dulles International airports, spots that are undergoing a culinary renaissance of sorts.
Airports have traditionally drawn their revenue from two pots of money — aeronautical revenue, which comes from landing fees and the rent airlines pay to airports for the use of airport facilities, and non-aeronautical revenue from concessions such as rental cars, parking, retail and food offerings. But years of bankruptcies and mergers mean there are far fewer players in the market paying the rent and fees that fund airport upkeep and operations — not to mention the WiFi networks and other amenities that travelers demand. Those cozy wooden rocking chairs at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport? Not free.
“As airlines have consolidated, they have increased their leverage over airports,” said Darren Perry, managing director of the aviation and travel practice at L.E.K. Consulting. That’s part of what’s driving innovation on the non-aeronautical side, he said.
And celebrity chefs now play a role in that.
“This is very much a ‘build it and they will come,’ ” Perry said. “If you think about what’s important for an airport restaurant, recognition is at the top of the list. There’s something about the known quantity. With the rise of reality TV and the fame of these chefs . . . that drives engagement [an airport] might not get otherwise.”
Added John Thomas, head of aviation and travel at L.E.K. Consulting: “It increases revenue for the airport, it takes pressure off the airlines and it makes for a better customer experience. It’s a really smart strategy.”
Thomas said Pittsburgh International has one of the most successful programs combining high-end retailers with buzz- worthy restaurants that have local flavor. Among international airports, officials at Singapore’s Changi International have made their airport such a popular shopping and dining destination that officials have had to post signs discouraging non-travelers from taking seats at restaurants and coffee shops away from those who have airline tickets.
For years, eating at National and Dulles was a perfectly fine experience. Sushi lovers could get their tuna rolls at Matsutake or their red meat fix at Sam and Harry’s. But airport officials conceded that some of their food offerings were a bit out-of-date, and at National in particular, there simply wasn’t enough variety. So when it came time to revamp their concessions program, Baker said they pushed for fresher, splashier concepts.
“We want people when they land to know they’re eating in the nation’s capital,” Baker said. And that means good food with local roots.
Since the revamp began in 2013, they’ve added local favorites such as Ben’s Chili Bowl, brought back Legal Seafood and thrown in nearly a dozen restaurants created or inspired by big-name chefs, including Michael Symon and Hall, both regular’s on ABC’s foodie chatfest “The Chew.”
And they’ve watched revenue grow. Since 2013, officials have seen a 15 percent increase in revenue from retail and food operations. In 2013, the authority made $28.9 million; in 2015, it is projecting it will make $34 million — $21.4 million of which will come from food and beverage operations.
How hands-on a chef is at a particular property varies. While some outlets bear the chef’s name, others are simply “inspired” by a particular culinary master, which may mean the celebrity simply offers ideas for a menu.
Reservoir, a French brasserie at National’s Terminal A, was “inspired” by Robert Wiedmaier, of Brasserie Beck and Marcel’s fame, who created the menu and helped train OTG’s Billy McCormick, who serves as executive chef for that and another eatery at National, Page, which was “inspired” by Hall, who consulted on the project.
But others are hands on.
On a recent day at Dulles, Symon, dressed casually in jeans with a jaunty gray porkpie hat, sat at a small table in the middle of the east concourse, autographing cookbooks for delighted fans. If it seemed odd to be signing copies of “Carnivore” in front of a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, Symon gave nothing away.
Among the airport’s growing roster of celebrity cooks, he’s been among the most active, cooking up hamburgers and serving beers on opening days and doling advice on how best to cook a turkey (no wet brine!) at the book-signing event, which took place just days before Thanksgiving.
He grinned, shot selfies, chatted and charmed his fans. Some, like Angela Barnitz, a stay-at-home mom from Ashburn, Va., didn’t even have a flight to catch. She just wanted to meet him in person.
“I am a very loyal fan of ‘The Chew,’ ” she said. “He’s so great.”
Symon, a James Beard Award winner, had initially been wary of such a venture. He had a number of successful restaurants, including two in Cleveland and another in Detroit. Even though he knew others who had launched successful airport-based eateries, he wasn’t sure it fit his brand.
But then there was this: As a frequent traveler, he too had had more than his share of bad airport food.
“We didn’t just want people to say, ‘That’s a great restaurant for an airport’ — we wanted it to be a great restaurant, period,” said Rababy, of United Concessions Group, who worked with Symon on the concept.
So Symon took the leap. He opened Bar Symon, which specializes in burgers, sandwiches, salads and fries, at Pittsburgh International Airport in 2012, not far from where he grew up. The Pittsburgh outlet now generates 35 percent more in revenue than the previous tenant, Rababy said. In February, Symon brought his Lola Burger — which layers a blend of Pat LaFrieda beef with a fried egg, pickled onions, bacon and cheddar on a challah bun — to Dulles.
“Who doesn’t want to be in D.C.?” he said with a wide grin as he signed a copy of “Five for Five” for another delighted fan. “And being in an airport means I don’t have to compete directly with José Andrés.”
Since it began revamping dining options at Reagan National and Dulles International airports in 2013, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has seen revenue from retail and food operations grow: