There are simple reasons that explain why most airport restaurants are bad.
- They are tough to staff. They don’t generally offer high wage jobs, but they require airport badging and checks which frequently take time. Get an airport restaurant job, you may not start for a month.
- Rents are high, so prices are high, yet frequently restaurants are required to charge ‘street pricing’ rather than a premium to reflect the challenges of their location. That limits ingredient spend, too, and it forces efficiency that limits choice.
- Add on that there’s usually little storage space (since all space comes at a premium) and supplies all need to come through security,, usually at off hours, and it’s tough to make an airport restaurant work.
- The airport may not permit gas ovens, so everything has to get re-created using electric.
Security constrains your chefs – their knives frequently have to be tethered to a wall to prevent being taken (and inventoried every day).
- Passengers are another challenge. They need food quickly, in order to make their next flight. And they’re bringing their varied tastes from all around the country or the world to a restaurant they are only choosing because it is there rather than because it actually serves what they want.
Your favorite brands may be in the airport, but it’s generally not those brands actually operating the location. Instead they’re licensing the name and concept and there’s a large airport concessions company like OTG or Delaware North that’s actually executing.
Nonetheless we’ve seen some interesting innovations in airport dining in recent years. A handful of airports have opened up security to allow non-travelers to visit the airport for eating and shopping. Many airport Starbucks now offer mobile ordering. Concessionaire OTG is famous for iPad ordering both as self-serve (reducing staff costs) and to allow customers to order from their gate and have food delivered, since many passengers tether to their gates and wouldn’t otherwise spend on food.
Airports make more money when sales are brisk. It increases the rents they can charge, and they usually take a cut of the concessions business. In terminals controlled by a specific airline, the airline may be taking that cut. And airports make split their take up with the airlines that are delivering customers. So anything that increases sales volume is a win.
- I often use the Grab app to pre-order food at participating airport restaurants so I can ‘grab’ something quickly between flights rather than standing in line.
- Philadelphia’s airport even launched curbside pickup so non-passengers could experience airport food (but why?)
Anything that innovates to expand passenger choice is a win for passengers, who get the food they want, and for airports, airlines and concessionaires who make more money.
Travel Essential has the story of Raleigh Durham airport’s new ‘Ghost Kitchens’. You’ve heard of Uber Eats or Door Dash from a Ghost Kitchen, a brand that doesn’t actually exist as a brick-and-mortar but offers delivered food only (and often several different kinds, sometimes from different businesses renting space).
At RDU this means that in terminal 2 (near gate C9) you can pick from 9 different restaurant concepts and menus in one spot, all of which are “venues that don’t currently exist at RDU.”
You can order everything from burgers, pizza and wings to vegan food, Tex-Mex cuisine, sushi, matcha lattes – even French fries with truffle parmesan seasoning. The concept also removes operational issues stemming from labor shortages, since fewer humans are involved.
So, how does this all work? At RDU, fliers can order online or via QR good and then pick up the food from an “Amazon-style locker using a code” or “have it delivered” to C or D gates. This doesn’t make the food better but it does help make it more varied and more convenient.