MIAMI — Rick Blatstein is the founder and CEO of OTG, a travel restaurateur specializing in the airport experience. Since its start at Philadelphia International Airport in 1996, he has grown OTG to more than 200 locations across 10 airports in North America. Blatstein is responsible for some of the largest chef collaborations and design innovations in the airport space and has made significant investments in the integration of technology. He spoke with Airways about getting into the airport business, starting the trend of targeting local eateries and what it takes meet travelers’ higher food expectations.
Airways: How did OTG Get into the Airport Concessions Business?
Rick Blatstein: We were originally working in restaurants and nightclubs in Philadelphia. We took over Philadelphia International Airport’s concessions temporarily during the blizzard of 1996. At the time, I really didn’t want to, but it changed our company’s life. Working inside an airport is like a city, with many different emotions. There are people who are happy going on leisure trips, sad for bereavement, military troops being transported and those taking business trips. Working in that community is wonderful. We have to run our business every day no matter what the weather.
Our first really large project was Terminal 6 at JFK Airport for JetBlue on a transitional basis. We were in T6 for a few years, but JetBlue’s JFK T5 was what transformed OTG became about: customer service and uniqueness.
When you Sat Down with JetBlue, How Did they Convey the Approach they Wanted to Take with the Terminal?
It was a really exciting and interesting experience. When we went into T6, Jetblue was pretty small. But they were on the way up, adding routes and planes in a very dynamic environment. I had the chance to spend a lot of time with JetBlue’s leadership like [founder David] Neeleman and [CEO David] Barger. We learned their culture and all about their customers. We had many conversations on how JetBlue wanted to be unique and create a genuine New York City experience in the new terminal.
It was a nice opportunity to learn about the company and put together the program you see today. In our first year, the terminal had the best revenue per enplanement figure in the airport’s history.
At the Time, Reaching Out to Local Chefs was almost Unheard of. How Did you Come Up with that Idea?
That was really a lot of fun and different in the beginning. Some chefs saw other chefs just put up their names, so they were reluctant at first. But everyone we went to said yes, although some took more convincing than others. We wanted to create a real restaurant experience at the airport.
It was important to have local chefs and local sourcing for that true New York City experience. Look at Aero Nuovo, which came from Chef Mario Batali’s group. We worked with his partner, Chef Mark Ladner, telling him about the Jetblue traveler and what we wanted to accomplish. He put together a tremendous menu. Mark’s protege is Mario Carbone, who owns Carbone and other restaurants, and is one of the hottest chefs in New York City. Mark said Mario wanted to go out on his own and asked him to open Aero Nuovo; the rest is history.
We looked at different concepts and decided which ones were the most important to have. For example, our Spanish tapas restaurant, Piquillo, is a gem. We have La Vie, a small French restaurant that seats 20 people.
The Airports Concessions Business Includes Long-Time Established Players like HMSHost and Delaware North. How were you able to Break into the Business
They’re both great companies, and I admire them both for what they do. But this question cuts to the core of what we’re about. We knew early on that we had to be different. We couldn’t play their game, so we decided to stick to what we do: creating great and interesting concepts. If you look at T5, the food hall is a success. We took inspiration from Whole Foods’ prepared food area. We continue to evolve and continue to be unique and do something different. The restaurants we put in airports are created specifically for the airlines and airports.
You also have deals with Delta in LaGuardia and United in Newark. How Do you Think your Deal with JetBlue Helped Get those Contracts?
I think T5 is a major part of what OTG is today. It was our first chance to build new restaurants and food halls, which had not been done before. For airlines and airports to see that and see the financial success of JetBlue with it has really helped us with our business now and in the future.
What are Some of your Personal Favorite Airport Food Concepts?
I tipped my hand a little earlier. I love our Spanish tapas restaurant Piquillo. I also love Sky Asian Bistro at Philadelphia. The Indian food we have in Toronto is just great, with a cool atmosphere. At Minneapolis-St. Paul, we have Twin Burger with the Juicy Lucy. We also have Shoyu there, which makes ramen bowls with fresh noodles.
I’m a creature of habit when I go to airports. Our objective is to create a desire to come to the airport early so they can get a glass of wine or sit at a favorite restaurant. That’s our whole objective. We are elevating our restaurants and as we infuse them with iPad technology. It’s been pretty amazing. We continue to learn more about our customers, and the more we learn, the better we can serve them.