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Touring the MSP Airport’s New Eateries

Smack Shack’s clam chowder was one of many, many generous servings media was privy to.

Just like a neighborhood restaurant should reflect its neighborhood, an airport should reflect its city’s cuisine—or cities in the case of MSP airport. To that end, the Metropolitan Airports Commission added 11 local restaurants out of 15 to its Phase I renovation and by early August they were ready to show off the results. In total 50 new retail offerings were added to the various concourses, and many of those are local as well. “Our goals were to create economic opportunity and branding opportunities for international exposure,” Elizabeth Grzechowiak, assistant director of concessions and  business development, told the various assorted media gathered to take a taste tour of the new local restaurants.

On her desk right now are more RFPs (requests for proposals) for the restaurants going into the second phase. Construction will start after the Super Bowl in February, she said, and there will be more national brands being considered for this phase.

The leases for space in Terminal 2 won’t be up until 2021, she added. Barrio, Surdyk’s, the Minnesota Wild cafe, Caribou and Subway make up the offerings for the smaller terminal currently.

In order to serve all travelers, selections have to be price-point sensitive. The perception, she says, is that airports are expensive places to shop and eat. The commission has a policy that prices can’t exceed 10 percent above street price. That percentage is reasonable, she said, because it’s expensive to open in an airport. Rent is not cheap and there are fees and security costs. The upside is that 90,000 people run through the airport a day. But because of that high volume of traffic, building materials have to sturdy substances, such as stone, granite or cement, which also aren’t cheap.

“It’s about two-to-three times more expensive to build here,” said Jordan Smith, owner of Black Sheep Pizza, who just opened an airport mall location. But one of the perks is that when there’s a logistical problem, such as the solid-burning fuel for the oven, “that’s their problem, on the street everything is mine,” he said, grinning. 

There are 19,000-badged employees who work at the airport and every one of them has to go through security every day on the way to work. Employees can park for free at Terminal 2 and take the tram over to Terminal 1. From parking the car to putting on their apron, one airport employee estimated it’s about 30 minutes.

For LoLo American Kitchen and Craft Bar’s co-owner Joe Ehlenz, the concern with opening in the airport was whether they could duplicate the farm-to-table experience that involved daily deliveries from their suppliers. “We’re not going to downgrade just to make a quick buck,” he said. “At the airport how we get local deliveries comes down to your relationships.”  For the airport location, suppliers aren’t farmers who are five miles away like they are at the Stillwater restaurant, and the newly opened one in Hudson; they’re more regional purveyors, he said.

Jordan Smith, owner of Black Sheep Pizza, talked to media about his experience going into an airport location.

All suppliers have to be badged and deliveries are dropped off and go through a separate security check before they can be delivered about two hours later to the restaurants.

The other notable difference in the two settings is that his 90 seats at the airport are “binge and purge.” Fliers tend to all come in at the same time and leave at the same time. Most of whom are in a hurry.

One of the first times Ehlenz went through the security lines, he was carrying in five pounds of smoked sea salt. Unfortunately, the TSA agents thought it was gunpowder. “Taste it,” they told him, so Ehlenz said he dipped a finger in the salt and stuck it in his mouth.  Not your average day at work.

Katy Gerdes, co-owner of Angel Food Bakery across from Food Truck Alley on Concourse E, saw teaming up with an experienced operator in the airport as a way she could grow. “A small business is not an easy life, not a sit-back-and-count-your-money life,” she said. But the airport commission listened to her ideas and was open to the new and creative, she said. 

Her doughnuts and pastries are not the cellophane-wrapped baked goods airport-goers are used to. In fact, Angel Food may be the first and only baked-on-premises bakery at a major airport.

Our last stop on the tour was Republic, where the trio, Confused Brothers, played cover songs. Students and alumni from McNally Smith routinely play in the restaurant, giving the students international exposure and the patrons live music.

At the last stop we sampled food from the Twins Grill, but since it was a ways down on Concourse C, it wasn't part of the group tour. I waddled down to see it, as much for a way to walk off all the food I had sampled, as professional curiosity. A large logo made from baseball bat handles painted red, white and blue and fashioned into Major League Baseball’s logo covered one complete wall. The facing wall was constructed out of the same stone as Target Field.

Finding servers isn’t as difficult as it might seem, a manager told me. They get two dayparts in one shift and unlike a Perkins, alcoholic beverages increase the tabs. Another perk is that even though it’s a bar, it closes at 9 p.m. most nights.

It will be awhile before the next round of RFPs are being announced, Grzechowiak said, but opportunities will come. Although, according to LoLo’s Ehlenz, being in the airport is more fun than applying to be in the airport. “It’s a lot of crying, long meetings … and takes many months,” he said. But no one said small business is easy. 

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