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Institutional Dining: The Feeding Frenzy at the Airport

Lake and Wine Kitchen and Bar sells bottles as well as glasses of wine

The last time you dashed for a bagel and a coffee before making your flight, or even bellied up for that all-important, nerve-calming Bloody Mary, did you give any thought to what goes into the feeding and watering, potentially, of 100,000 people on a given day? Probably not.

But that number is how many bodies pass through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on any given day. One hundred thousand people with wholly disparate timelines (and perceived timelines,) ages, nationalities, dietary needs and hungers. How to feed them all efficiently and not just satisfactorily, but extraordinarily well? 

That’s the charge of the approximately 1,700 men and women heading up and working within the food and dining programs at the airport, a massive, many-tentacled beast that runs surprisingly well, if you consider the task at hand. While getting our bellies filled may be just a passing thought on our list of things to do as we board our flight, the concessions and business development staff never stops considering how to get the job done right. 

A snapshot: 

The airport is currently phasing in 45 new food and beverage concepts within a four-year period. It’s just wrapped phase one, with 15 new units, and phase two will wrap in the winter of 2019 with 30 new concepts. The competitive process for who gets chosen begins with a request for proposals published in a newsletter, on the airport website, and in local and national publications. Winners are appointed by the Airport Authority, made up of 15 commissioners, 13 appointed by the governor, one by the mayor of Minneapolis, and one by the mayor of St. Paul. Recommendations are made by concessions and business development staff. Interested parties keep a keen pulse on the process, and Liz Grzechowiak, assistant director of the commission, says the response is “robust.” 

On the way to Gates A, B, C, The Twins Grill lends a local flavor with ball field food. 

While airports nationwide are trending toward more local and independent, and less national branding, Grzechowiak says there needs to be a sensible split between those local, indie names, and catering to the roughly two-thirds of airport passengers who pass through the airport from elsewhere—many of whom have no predilection toward local spots, and are instead in search of something comforting and familiar. 

So, say you’re a winner of one of these competitive spots. Then what? 

Since running a restaurant at the airport is typically incomparable to running a street-side unit, proprietors have a choice: a direct lease where that owner runs the entire operation, a joint venture where the owner is involved in 20 percent of the operation of investment, quality control, payroll, etcetera; or a franchise model, where the airport gets use of the menu, logo and branding, but they run the entire operation and the owner receives 5 percent of revenue. Thanks to the “learning curve,” says Grzechowiak, and the specificities of the airport dining operation, the majority of lease-holders go into joint ventures.

“If you run out of fresh broccoli, you don’t just run out and get some and bring it through security,” Grzechowiak says by way of illustration. Want to bring some fresh broccoli to your restaurant at the airport? Prepare for an FBI background check, among many other steps. Unsurprisingly, to streamline the process, the airport employs its own centralized receiving and distribution company, Bradford Logistics, to handle the many parts. 

Facility manager of Bradford, Christof Stolarczyk, gave me a breakdown of the process. About 111 vendors arrive at the airport in a given week. Now that an increasing number of street-side brands are represented at the airport, more and more “mom and pop” vendors are invited to the party, too. The main focus of the process being security, every driver must be vetted, and re-vetted each year. 

The product arrives on a pallet affixed with a barcode label, and that entire pallet is given a 360-degree inspection. A perk: Bradford Logistics handles invoicing, and if you’re a restaurant doing business at the airport, all of your product will be delivered to your unit in one fell swoop. No more waiting for the beer guy, Sebastian Joe’s ice cream, Coke, and US Foods all staggered throughout the day. Chefs, is that not incentive enough to open at the airport? And yes, chefs can come down to the dock to inspect their own product if need be—you’re not stuck with the subpar fish just because it’s airport dining. 

But plenty of front-end consideration goes into the making of an airport restaurant and its menu, so that fewer headaches happen at the point of sale—headaches that an airport restaurant simply can’t afford to make, says Michelle Ranum, chief marketing and branding manager for Aero Service Group, an umbrella company that owns and operates airport restaurants. 

Locally, Barrio, Stone Arch, and Lake Wine are all run by Aero, which among other things, helps those restaurants operate the way they would if they had “Street Level Priorities,” a program that assists restaurateurs in competing for each traveler’s choice to dine with them as if they had they same level of competition as on the street—an increasingly important imperative at the airport. 

Angel Food Bakery is one of the only, if not the only, from-scratch bakery in an airport. Passengers can watch donuts and other pastries being prepared. 

That said, they are at the airport. So now what? 

“Recognizing that time is always a factor.” Ranum says that this is the chief concern when designing spaces and menus. So, the outside has to match the inside—if the outside says “diner,” the inside had better have a diner menu. And, nothing goes on the menu that can’t be executed and set down in front of the guest in eight minutes or less. If you’ve afforded yourself enough time to stop into an airport restaurant for a meal, Ranum says you do have time to order the steak. She and her colleagues have made sure of it. 

Since she doesn’t have access to traditional marketing techniques like ads, billboards, and emails, then how does she market, exactly? With the product itself. She tells me that there are certain regulars who build time into their travel schedules in order to visit their favorite airport restaurant, simply because they enjoy the experience that much—and these days, airport restaurants have to rise to that level of expectation if they want to stay competitive. 

And, there are a few guest misconceptions about airport dining too, she says. One is that airport food is rapaciously expensive. At MSP, restaurateurs have a 10 percent cap on the amount they’re allowed to charge above street-side dining. Think you’re paying a ton more for a cocktail at a bar? It’s probably because you accepted that double that bartenders will offer in the name of time-saving on a second drink. And bonus? You don’t have to explain to the bartender why you’re having a Screwdriver at 6 a.m. 

“There’s no judgment here,” says Ranum. In fact, bartenders tend to have Bloodies and O.J. iced and ready to fortify prior to that 6 a.m. bar open (Minnesota law for the earliest a bar can open) so as to top it off with vodka and have you relaxed and ready to fly at your appointed takeoff time. 

Still feel funny about it? Nobody knows what time zone you’re in, anyway. What happens at the airport, stays at the airport. Just as long as that doesn’t apply to your luggage, too. 

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