Good news for travelers: Airport food isn’t what it used to be.
Gone are the days when the only choices were a steam-table hamburger or a hot dog of unknown age from a generic snack bar. From Los Angeles to Orlando, and at scores of landing fields in between, today’s airport eateries are more likely to be a family sit-down chain or a colorful pub.
When Washington National Airport’s new terminal opens Sunday, visitors can choose from such fare as clam chowder at Legal Sea Foods, fried cheese at Charles Mann All Pro Grill and drinks from Koo Koo Roo California Kitchen.
Fast food is still available, but it tends to come from recognizable outlets such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.
“There’s certainly a lot more variety of things being offered in airports now, from national fast-food type operations … to honest-to-goodness restaurants,” observed Kyd Brenner, who travels extensively for the Corn Refiners Association.
“People’s initial reaction, when we first started operating in airports, was to blink, rub their eyes and say: ‘Is this an airport? Oh my God, service, clean facilities, a smile on the face of the waiter,”’ recalled Patricia Miller, president of Anton Airfood of Arlington, Va., which operates facilities at airports in New York, Dallas and other cities.
The changeover to classier cuisine and name brands started in the late 1980s, said Stan Novack, a vice president of Host Marriott Services in Bethesda, Md., which handles food services at 66 U.S. airports and a half-dozen overseas. The change was prompted by a combination of customer demand and modernization of airports, he said.
“People were looking for something different, comfort food, reasonable prices,” Novack said.
And it’s not only food choices that are expanding. At Orlando International Airport in Florida, for example, a microbrewery operated by Shipyard Brewing Co. of Portland, Maine, opened in April.
While operating in an airport means higher rents, the trend in the industry is toward “street pricing,” said Bill McCarten, president and chief executive of Host Marriott Services. That means that what you pay for a cup of Starbucks coffee at the airport will be similar to the price in a mall.
CA One Services, based in Buffalo, N.Y., operates food service in 30 airports, often choosing local themes in what it calls gateways to local food and attractions.
At Los Angeles International Airport, for example, it runs The Encounter, a space-theme restaurant operated in conjunction with the Walt Disney Co.
“We try to provide restaurants, retail (shops) and bars in keeping with the city where we’re located, often in partnership with local businesses in order to get that feel,” said Dana Browne, CA One’s general manager at the Denver International Airport. Eateries there include the Front Range Grill, where people can watch their food being cooked in a Western setting.
With airlines cutting back on food service, she added, “we’re seeing much more to-go business” for people boarding flights where they won’t be fed. And, Browne added, a growing business is people getting off flights who haven’t eaten, heading for the restaurants.
“The impression people have of airport food is that it’s not quality, so we’re working hard to keep the quality up,” said Steve Kurland, general manager of the Legal Sea Foods restaurant at Washington National Airport, the second venture into landing fields by the Boston-based chain.
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