Why Tortas Frontera Is Great, And Other Airport Restaurants Are So Bad

The Washington Post asks why the Rick Bayless staple at Chicago O’Hare, Tortas Frontera, is so good while most airport food is so bad?

The bottom line is because Bayless had the clout and airport interest and cared enough not to settle for some of the constraints usually imposed on cooking at the airport. He had leverage.

Under the condition that the chef could have complete freedom to choose his suppliers and manage recipes himself, the two parties reached an agreement.

…In the research and development phase, Bayless put finished dishes in to-go boxes and let them sit at room temperature for an hour before tasting them, then tweaked recipes accordingly. “You’ve got to board your plane. You’ve got to wait ’til after takeoff … you’re probably going to wait until the drink cart has been through,” Bayless said. “So we wanted to make sure that all of our food tasted really good after an hour.”

Bayless says HMSHost, the main airport food-service company, advised him to have a lot of the food premade so it could be served as fast as possible, and warned him that customers wouldn’t buy aromatic or spicy food. “We gave them food that was made to order, very aromatic and spicy,” Bayless said. “They said, ‘Oh, you’ll be out of business in six months.’ ”

An airport restaurant is nothing like a restaurant outside of the airport. You generally aren’t even dealing with the restaurant whose brand you know. Most of the restaurants in airports are concepts licensed by big concessionaires who have the contracts for the airport, and with experience dealing with airport security, airport rules, and limited space.

An airport restaurant is likely to be bad because:

  • Restaurants have to bring everything in through security they can’t do just in time delivery of food. There are limits on when things can be brought in, they can’t generally bring supplies down the concourse at peak travel times.

  • They can’t work with the best vendors There are often rules about which companies can bring food through security.

  • Space is limited so you can’t do much storage. In fact Tortas Frontera has a separate prep kitchen that customers can’t see, with ingredients run from that kitchen out to concourse locations.

  • Electric cook tops The airport may not permit gas ovens, so everything has to get re-created using electric.

  • Knives chained to the wall Security constrains your chefs, their knives frequently have to be tethered to a wall to prevent being taken (and inventoried every day).

  • Employees are hard to get they need to pass security checks, and that takes time, so hiring on the spot is difficult. You often get worse employees that can pass a background check but have few less cumbersome options that don’t involve commuting to the airport.

  • Lowest common denominator cooking Passengers usually choose a restaurant because it is there, they do not go to the airport because of the restaurant (Tortas Frontera is an exception which does influence some passengers’ choice of connection). People need to be served quickly, and tastes vary. The space has to be used to serve as many people as possible as quickly as possible, you even see brands that do not serve breakfast out of the airport offering breakfast items (Asian restaurants serving eggs or breakfast tacos). Rents are high so you need high volume as well.

  • Despite high cost and hassle you can’t charge more many airports have street pricing rules that cap how much more items can cost in the airport (perhaps exceeding off-airport pricing by no more than 10%).

At the end of the day HMSHost, Delaware North, and OTG deliver a garbage product to a lot of people. It keeps people fed (when they staff their storefronts properly) but there’s little to look forward to.

These are all problems Tortas Frontera had to address – and work around rather than merely genuflecting.

To meet O’Hare security requirements, Bayless had to get a specialty purveyor licensed to access the airport. He has the other small farmers and producers deliver his order to the licensed purveyor, who then makes one airport delivery. To make things more complicated, deliveries are only allowed at certain times of the day. The extra steps make doing business more expensive than it would be serving the same menu downtown.

I don’t love Chicago O’Hare, but when I book an O’Hare connection I usually think, “at least I can get Tortas Frontera.” And I’ll pick up a sandwich (choriqueso is my go-to, followed by the pepito) even though there’s free lounge food available. I’ll gladly pay for something good enough that I would eat it even if it wasn’t inside of an airport.

There need to be some licensed TGI Fridays and plenty of quick serve places in an airport, to put out a lot of food to travelers with varying palates. But not every place needs to do that. It’s a crime that when HMSHost, Delaware North and OTG put together a proposed slate of restaurants when bidding for an airport’s business, they don’t include ‘actually good and interesting food’ among the options (or if they do, then the people putting together their bids need to learn something about what good and interesting means). And it’s a shame that airports don’t insist on this.

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