Airports Give Travelers a Taste of the Town

By Ross Perkins, Foodable Contributor

Gone are the days when U.S. airports were anonymous locations that looked the same as you boarded a flight and the same when you landed. Now, airports across the country are becoming spotlights on local food for passengers to enjoy, while waiting for their flights. With a captive audience with discretionary dollars, it makes financial sense to give travelers dining options that they can’t get where they are traveling.

Major Airport's Restaurants Go Local

Large airports across the country are showcasing the best their cities have to offer. Back in the 1980s, Rick Bayless made his name in Chicago, when he and his wife opened Frontera Grill, which focused on Mexican cuisine. Flash forward a few decades, and Bayless opened Tortas Frontera in the Chicago O’Hare’s busy United Airlines Terminal 1. And Tortas Frontera is a stone’s throw from Eli’s Cheesecake and the famous Garrett Popcorn Shop.

In Washington, D.C. Reagan National is becoming a mini-mecca for diners looking for local flavors. It already has an outlet of U Street’s famous Ben’s Chili Bowl and will be adding &pizza, American Tap Room, and Taylor Gourmet this fall.

And this is repeated across the country at other large airports. Los Angeles International has the famous Pink’s hotdog shop, while Austin stays true to its Texas roots with Salt Lick BBQ. But none of these airports can compare to the vanguard of making the airport a locavore destination: San Francisco International. Back in 2012, it was reported by QSR Magazine that 85% of the airport’s dining options were local brands. And while the emphasis on local operators carries its own costs, such as additional time finding suitable operators, it has paid off in the end since sales increased by 55%.

Secondary Airports Go Local Too, But Little By Little

However, with every trend, it takes time to trickle down from the major airports, but a few secondary airports have been adding local operators to its portfolio. Little Rock’s airport has an Ouachita Brew House, where travelers can enjoy a selection of Arkansas craft beers. Tuscon, Arizon’s airport makes sure travelers are caffeinated by featuring the local chain Ike’s Coffee, with four locations throughout the airport. However, at both of the airports, the rest of the dining options are primarily national chains.

Other secondary airports are experiencing problems that are impacting the value of the leasable space and making it less likely that airport authorities will seek out local operators. Cincinnati’s airport is a Delta hub, but the airline drastically cut back service and that’s leading to the closure of the airport’s Concourse C. Memphis lost its Delta hub status this month and will start seeing problems leasing its space as flights and passenger counts continue to drop. And in Cleveland, United Airlines removed the airport’s hub status earlier this year. These three airports are faced with fewer flights and declining passenger numbers, making the airport’s leasable space look less lucrative. This in turn– makes it more difficult to find operators for the space. For the airports’ governing bodies, they may have to turn to finding any operator to sign on the dotted line.

National Brands Aren’t Going Away

But just because there has been an increase in the number of local establishments at large airports and some at secondary ones, the national chains aren’t going to leave anytime soon. It’s easier and less risky for airports to lease to bigger chains, since they have the capital to absorb risk and the teams in place to handle complex leasing agreements.

And large national chains have large national followings. Airports often have tens of thousands of square feet of leasable space (sometimes more) to fill at any given time. So to quickly fill space, it often makes the sense to have multiple outlets of the same restaurant in different terminals. There are cities with several Starbucks on one block, so a busy terminal should be able to support multiple outlets of the same brand, as well.

However, like any other venue, airports need a diversity of dining options to appeal to the millions of travelers who pass through its corridors. Even the “most local” of airports, San Francisco International, still has about 15% of its space occupied by non-local operators. At Reagan National, there’s a McDonald’s there too. It is about finding the right balance that’s important for airports to consider when it comes time to either renew a lease or to fill up a vacant space. And that balance is going to be different for every airport.