MIAMI — Airport restaurant operators HMSHost and OTG Management are continuing to raise the bar for travelers by bringing unique concepts into terminals. These changes are manifested in two new concepts the operators have brought to two airports.

HMSHost is bringing The Book & Bourbon to Kentucky’s Louisville International Airport in 2017. The restaurant’s focus will be on southern cuisine, and it will work with spirit partners in the region to serve the best bourbons.

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Food that will be served includes:

  • A fried green tomato benedict featuring poached hen eggs, country ham, béarnaise and griddle hash;

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  • Kale salad with grilled shrimp, grit croutons, aged white cheddar cheese and apple cider vinaigrette; and
  • Short rib hush puppies.

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OTG recently opened Tacquila, a taco and tequila bar at United Airlines’ Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport. The bar offers 200 varieties of tequila, along with mezcals and signature tequila-based cocktails. The offerings were curated by Allison Kafalas, OTG’s director of beverage, who received her tequila certification from the Mexican government.

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The menu consists of street-style tacos with house-made salsa and tortillas, soups, tortas and elotes. It was developed with New York Chef Alex Stupak, who’s behind the famed New York taqueria, Empellon.

Marisa Garcia is an aviation industry analyst and writes at FlightChic.com and other media outlets. The biggest change she’s seen in the airport food and beverage experience in the past 10 years is a wider variety and a greater focus on fresh and healthy meals.

“We’re seeing different flavors, along with a representation of both local and national brands. You still see your McDonald’s and Burger King, but you’re also seeing food beyond those brands,” said Garcia.

She cited what’s being done at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. “In the transfer terminal, there’s a wonderful Danish pub where I can get bitterballen,” she said. “Right next door is a cafeteria that offers fresh vegetables, fruit, sandwiches and fresh-squeezed orange juice.”

Frank Sickelsmith, HMSHost’s vice president, adult beverage and restaurant development, said in the past 10 years, some things are the same, but a lot has changed. “People like the sexy part of these chef-driven restaurants. But they still need their Burger Kings and McDonald’s because lots of travelers still want to see things they recognize and that won’t change,” he said.

Frank Sickelsmith, HMSHost’s vice president. (Credits: HMSHost)
Frank Sickelsmith, HMSHost’s vice president. (Credits: HMSHost)

The real change has been in the restaurants and bars, said Sickelsmith. “Airports have changed and their design has followed that. But as airports change aesthetically, brands have changed too. And what we do in airports now is representative of what’s already in cities,” he said. “It’s sort of a smaller version of what’s happening in the city and that’s pretty cool.”

Thanks to things like the Food Network, people are more interested in what they’re eating, said Sickelsmith. “We’re seeing things like slow food or farm-to-table and this drives what we do,” he said. “People know more about their foods, like gluten-free and non-GMOs, and they’re demanding it in their restaurants.”

Rick Blatstein is the CEO of OTG. “We’ve been doing this for 25 years and we always believed that we wanted to have restaurants inside of airports, not airport restaurants,” he said. “We’ve always believed in fresh, scratch-cooked food in our restaurants from day one. As we’ve learned from our customers, we’ve stretched out and tried new concepts.”

Rick Blatstein, OTG CEO (Credits: OTG)
Rick Blatstein, OTG CEO (Credits: OTG)

Blatstein has noticed the industry moving toward what OTG has done in airports. “I love seeing that happen because the beneficiaries are the customers, and they are happy,” he said. “Customers should be treated the same way whether they’re eating at the airport or in the city.”

Both Blatstein and Sickelsmith agree that changes in food have happened because travelers have demanded it. “Everyone deserves to have a wonderful meal in the airport, whether it’s in a restaurant, a quick serve or [grab-and-go] market,” said Blatstein. “Others are now seeing how much travelers are enjoying it, so it’s been an evolution of the business. But we’re doing what we’ve always done.”

Sickelsmith said these changes are driven by the way people behave in their regular lives, along with major food changes in America. “From 10 years ago to now, we’ve brought in people who never considered working in an airport and we’ve done a good job in recruiting them,” he said. “[HMSHost Vice President of Culinary] Chef Jeff [Steelman] works in the airport, but he would do well working anywhere.”

Another thing driving innovation in airport restaurants is what’s happening in streetside restaurants, said Sickelsmith. “And we’re executing it well because we work with people who do this well streetside,” he said. “And we have a good work environment where we support our talent.”

One of Sickelsmith’s current favorite concepts is 1897 Market in Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. “It was an idea that came up seven years ago, and it took us five years to develop it,” he said. “We wanted to create a brand that mixed food and retail. We also wanted to to integrate shopping into the experience.”

1897 Market is a brand HMSHost can put into different markets,” said Sickelsmith. “And it can connect with local brands and represent the community,” he said.

Blatstein says he’s “blown away” by the food at OTG’s new concept Daily, at Newark Liberty International Airport, where the menu changes every day. “A steak at Prime Tavern at LaGuardia Airport is always delicious, and I enjoy the sushi at Deep Blue Sushi at JFK Airport’s Terminal 5,” he said.

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Sickelsmith sees more local eateries in airports. “Having local brands represented in airports is awesome,” he said. “The use of proprietary brands that use local products is also good. But you also need to have brands that people want and recognize. So you need that healthy balance of local brands that represent a city and national brands.”

Blatstein says the industry will continue to evolve, with fuller menus. “We currently have 60 to 80 items on our menus, but customers will continue to demand larger menus,” he said. “We hope to see more street pricing everywhere. The average income of travelers is high, but some look at them like a captured audience, which is a missed opportunity.”

Airports are recognizing this more, said Blatstein. “So they will raise the bar and customers will want to come early to the airport rather than need to come early,” he said.