Airport and Aviation Marketing Special Report

AIRWORLD PART 6: DIET OF A TERMINAL MAN

Navigating the Gastronomic Wasteland of Airport Food

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DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- I woke up Sunday with a sore throat. It was inevitable. After all, what are airliners if not giant flying thermos bottles that enable every passenger to efficiently share his microbial spew with every other passenger? Before I left,
Sophie had fretted endlessly about the super-germs I was sure to inhale or absorb over the course of my travels. Multiply Los Angeles International Airport’s 60 million passengers per year by the billions of microscopic life forms each one was carrying, and surely something was eventually going to slip by my immune system. To avoid contamination, I shouldn’t just wash my hands, she advised me, but instead wash all the way up to the elbows, the way a surgeon scrubs before entering the O.R. I, in turn, joked that I had a 50-50 chance of coming home early with a severe upper respiratory ailment.

Weakened condition
But my weakened condition, I suspected, had less to do with what I was inhaling (although spending another night on the floor at O’Hare probably didn’t help) and more to do with what I’d been eating.

During my first week in Airworld, I’ve eaten a half dozen Clif Bars (for breakfast), in-flight almonds, peanuts, pretzels and trail mix, grazed my way through Presidents Clubs, Crown Room Clubs, Red Carpet Clubs, Admirals’ Clubs and Worldclubs, and eaten more turkey sandwiches that I could bear to count. I’d eaten “Wild Turkeys” in Orlando (because the pepperjack cheese apparently drives them wild), turkey paninis from Starbucks and a turkey on ciabatta from a Chili’s Too at O’Hare that was so stale the bread had the consistency of a Nerf football. I can’t complain about the airline food because in this day and age in coach class, there isn’t any (with the exception of the $8 jerk chicken sandwich I bought on my Song flight, which trumped the turkeys across the board). The best meals so far have been flank steak at Encounter, the ambitious, vaguely Trekkie-themed restaurant in the iconic Theme Building

at LAX, and tuna steak Saturday night at DEMA, the restaurant in the Westin Hotel attached to the airport. (Westin PR was paying.)

Airport 'cuisine'?
While still at LAX, I smirked when I spotted Malibu Al’s Beach Bar in Terminal 5, which provided Alan Richman a jumping off point for a sweeping takedown of Airport cuisine (can that word even be used without sarcasm?) in the August issue of Condé Nast Traveler.

“At a time when air travel is expanding,” he wrote, “in-flight meals are disappearing, and time spent in airports is lengthening -- a formula one might expect would herald a golden age of in-terminal dining -- the food is certainly no better and probably worse than it has ever been: bland, formulaic, and in the case of establishments like Malibu Al's, dispiriting.”

Richman wonders whether the majority of travelers are so desperate for distraction before boarding that they’re willing to eat just about anything -- setting the bar pretty low for airport concessionaires. He’s right, but passengers have only themselves to blame. According to my new friends at the trade publication Airport Revenue News, the “primary dining style” of most airport visitors in 2004 was “indifference.”

No sit-down restaurants
When Denver International was still only on the drawing board back in 1991, the master plan called for no sit-down restaurants of any kind because prospective passengers indicated they didn’t want any. Instead, they got the food courts they deserved. When the Quiznos brain trust opened Chef Jimmy’s bistro as an experiment on one of the concourses a year ago, passengers practically fell to their knees to give thanks for the medley of cooked, rather than merely reheated, dishes on the menu. DIA executives told me this shift away from fast food and more toward fast-casual has been 10 years in the making, and that a new round of passenger surveys (the first since 1991) are in the works.

Not that Richman should hold his breath for a “renaissance” anytime soon. After indifference, most passengers care about “healthful” and “low-carb” food, which has translated to the packaged sandwiches I’ve been subsisting on for the past week. The supremacy of fast food has given way to “fast casual,” which would explain why Chili’s Too is seemingly everywhere –- from Orlando to O’Hare to Detroit –- and why Orlando’s latest showpiece restaurant is Romano’s Macaroni Grill.

Photos: Greg Lindsay
Food within Airworld is largely comprised of those cellophane-wrapped meals distributed on some airplanes and terminal chain restaurants whose offerings are often as unappetizing as they are cold.

Fertile ground for chains
Airworld is fertile ground for chains, possessing the double advantages of familiarity (with customer) and a reliable track record (appeasing airport operators) that freeze local favorites out. And once a chain has a beachhead in Airworld, it’s only a matter of time before its marketing department is studying timetables and plotting expansion at the most popular destinations. As one restaurant consultant put it in Airport Revenue News, “my recommendation to them if I were doing consulting is if it’s a hit in say, Dulles, then look at the major airports Dulles flies to and then open it up in those airports as well so you can get that brand recognition.”

But sometimes brand recognition blurs into brand mutation. What am I supposed to make of the Fox Sports Skybox bars and grills I’ve spotted in Orlando and O’Hare? What does a burger prepared by an also-ran cable channel taste like? What about the tacos at the Jose Cuervo Tequileria here in Detroit, or the “Caribbean specialties” at the Casa Bacardi in Tampa? (Richman confirmed that the former, at least, had drifted away from its core competency: “The tortillas appeared to have been made out of white flour and chewing gum,” he wrote.) And then there is the Expedia.com Cafe, which I haven’t seen, and which must possess brand synergies I can’t quite imagine (“low fare” has a different connotation in the restaurant business) but which apparently boasts an average customer check 54% higher “than a generic airport bar,” according to its creator, HMShost.

Concession giant HMSHost
HMSHost (formerly Host Marriott Services) is to airport concessions what Clear Channel and JCDecaux are to their advertising. According to its Web site, HMShost has annual revenues of $1.6 billion and 71 airport locations. It doesn’t just install chains, but invents or imports those seemingly unviable local brands when the opportunity presents itself. When it won the $28 million contract for San Antonio’s airport in 2001, it promised to install a pair of Starbucks, a brew pub, a new sports bar brand created in partnership with former NBA star George “Iceman” Gervin and a Chelsea Sandwiches of Texas.

While passing through O’Hare last week, I decided to taste test the airport’s offered delicacies. I grew up south of Chicago, and so had a mental benchmark against which I could judge the local brands present in United’s wing –- especially the divey Billy Goat Tavern and The Berghoff, a German institution in the Loop. I couldn’t bear to actually eat the O’Hare Billy Goat’s greasy burgers (the same goes for the heat-lamped deep dish pizzas I spotted), but I did make it out to the Berghoff Cafe on United’s outer concourse in order to sample a corned beef sandwich and the Berghoff’s own beer. It only took about a minute for the cafe to deliver a body blow to my expectations when the carver announced my corned beef-on-rye would go without the rye. “We’re out. Whole wheat or a Kaiser.” I chose the Kaiser. He repeated this exchange with nearly every customer. “What do you mean, no rye?” one demanded. “I want to see the manager. I’m serious!”

The meat was cold, the cafe was packed, and despite the wood paneling and stained-glass chandelier, I remained unconvinced that I was anywhere but another outpost of Airworld. I’ll stick to the turkey sandwiches and start taking my vitamins.

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