What’s Up with Airport Units?
One hundred million. That’s how many passengers, on average, travel through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport each year. Granted, it is the busiest airport in the world, but this figure provides just a small glimpse into the captive audience brands can reach by opening an airport outpost for their restaurants. That’s why concepts big and small are making the leap to airports—or at least considering the move.
The Peached Tortilla, an Asian-fusion concept in Austin, Texas, recently launched a new unit at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in partnership with Delaware North. “A lot of people come through Austin these days, and they’re able to see our brand in the airport,” says founder Eric Silverstein. “We could always use the additional brand awareness, so I really didn’t hesitate.”
While the potential growth benefits outweigh the challenges, there are obstacles to overcome with adapting any restaurant—particularly a full-service concept—to the bustling airport environment. First and foremost: maintaining the brand’s identity.
Because airport units are typically licensed and operated by larger companies like Delaware North and HMSHost, brand owners have less hands-on control over the design, service level, and culture of the new location. “The individuals that work at the unit don’t get paid by Peached Tortilla, so it’s a challenge to get somebody to care about a brand that doesn’t pay them,” Silverstein says.
To remedy this, Silverstein has made strides toward forging relationships with the airport employees, training them directly, inviting them to team functions, and even sending one of his full-time managers to work at the airport unit for an entire year. “It’s been incredibly challenging to build a culture,” he says. “I feel like we’ve turned that corner to an extent. We have a good rapport, but it’s really a work in progress.”
As most concepts do when transitioning to an airport setting, Silverstein tweaked the brand’s menu to meet the needs of busy travelers. Because tacos were a best-seller at the freestanding location, Peached Tortilla made them the focus of the airport operation, allowing guests to customize tacos and turn them into bowls or salads, too. For breakfast, the brand introduced four taco offerings, from Pork Belly & Egg tacos to a Japanese Sweet Potato & Cauliflower variety. “We had to make a menu that made sense to travelers and that we could execute relatively quickly,” Silverstein says. “Travelers want quick options and they sometimes want healthy options.”
Not only do brands have to adapt their menus to an airport setting, but they also have to contend with design and space constraints. Kate Seeley, director of design at HMSHost—which operates restaurants at more than 120 airports around the world—says most full-service brands have only 1,800–3,000 square feet to work with in an airport. “It’s a challenge trying to squeeze everything in, with all the different brand elements and furniture,” she says.
That’s why Seeley and her team work with restaurant partners to develop designs that both capture the essence of the concept and make logistical sense. At Hugo’s Cocina in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, HMSHost created a design that reflects the brand’s original location—including old-world Mexican decor—“but with a contemporary twist, like unique light fixtures and hand-painted plates on the wall,” Seeley says. “The seating is comfortable but flexible, so it works in the airport environment.”
Each restaurant design must take airport-specific factors into account, such as access to charging stations and plenty of room for luggage. “Nothing’s worse than dining and having to move your luggage back and forth awkwardly to let people by you,” Seeley says. “We go so far as to build custom furniture pieces that easily house luggage underneath.”
The durability of each design element is crucial, too, says Chris von Eckartsberg, design lead at BCV Architecture + Interiors, which recently created two full-service concepts, Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar and The Post Brewing Co., in the Denver International Airport. “Restaurants are by nature places that get beat up quite a bit, but an airport takes that to another level,” he says. Using materials that both look good and perform well are key to keeping airport concepts fresh over their lifespan, which can sometimes be 10 years or more, von Eckartsberg adds. “A lot of abuse can happen in that time.”
Especially when you have more than 1,000 people coming through the unit each day, as The Peached Tortilla does in the Austin airport. It’s these customers who are often the biggest challenge of all when operating an airport unit. “There’s an ungodly amount of things that could go wrong before you even eat at Peached Tortilla,” Silverstein says. Whether that’s a lost bag, delayed flight, or miles-long security line, it can affect the customer’s mood. “If they have a bad experience at the airport, then we’re the last ones they take it out on.”
In the Middle of It All
Space is already tight as it is in an airport, but some concepts are even more constrained than usual—particularly when located mid-concourse, like Denver’s Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar.
Due to its location, the concept has no back-of-house space, meaning each angle has to be attractive and every square foot well thought-out. “It was set up to be this see-and-be-seen, dramatic feature piece in the great hall that you approach from any direction,” von Eckartsberg says.
Twelve-foot aquariums flank each side of the full bar, with an oyster-shucking station on one end, a sushi bar on the other, and a grab-and-go counter in the middle. Harking back to the freestanding location’s design, the BCV team picked up materials like brass, Carrera marble, white-washed wood, and leather seats to help travelers recognize the brand in a new setting. “Those things are age-old elements, but when you put them together in a new, dramatic way, you can have something that’s both timely and timeless,” von Eckartsberg says.