Sky Harbor food: Airport adding more local restaurants

PHOENIX - Travelers accustomed to chain eateries like Chili's and Paradise Bakery now have a chance to experience local offerings such as Cowboy Ciao, La Grande Orange and Barrio Cafe at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

The new options at Terminal Four, each a second location of a well-known Valley restaurant, are part of an initiative to bring more local flavor to one of the nation's busiest airports.

"Airports have been moving in this direction, but we really took it a step further, " said Paula Kucharz, the airport's business development manager.

In 2011, the Phoenix City Council approved the first of two contracts that brought 19 new restaurants to the terminal. The revamped airport concessions included national and regional chains and, for the first time, a selection of locally owned small businesses.

"There's a critical balance of local regional and national, and it's largely because the traveler is asking for that," Kucharz said. "They want that choice."

The airport's goals included bringing in entirely new food and beverage outlets, each of which also had to have a street location outside of the airport. It required eateries to match their prices to the street locations, Kucharz said.

The airport gave two multi-million dollar contracts to international airport food and beverage providers HMS Host International and SSP America. The first phase of new restaurants, contracted by HMS Host International, began construction in January 2012 and was completed by the end of the year. The second phase will be under construction through the end of 2013.

Derek Boettcher, Host's director of operations at Sky Harbor, said the program is like none other in the country.

"We're very proud of what we did here," Boettcher said.

He said the company surveyed 1,300 Sky Harbor passengers to see what types of eateries they wanted. The responses showed interest in local restaurants and comfortable, easy-to-use concessions.

"You can't cookie-cutter programs from one city to another," he said.

Boettcher said the company spent months recruiting local businesses to take their concepts to the airport. Host held several events to open owners up to the idea of the higher rents and better exposure that come with an airport location.

Eight partners emerged, including Cartel Coffee, Press Coffee Food & Wine and Sir Veza's Taco Garage, part of the El Charro Café family of restaurants.

"We think the program represents the city and the region well," he said.

Timothy James, director of research and consulting at the L. William Seidman Research Institute at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business, said the inclusion of local small businesses won't make much impact on the city or state economy.

"If I'm being totally honest I don't think there's huge difference between that and a national chain," he said.

James said both independent businesses and large chains employ local residents and often buy from local food producers. The biggest difference between the two types of business would be where the profits go, he said.

"The winner at the end of the day is the city of Phoenix," he said.

That's because the city, which owns the airport and charges rent to food and beverage outlets, will be able to attract more and more international business as it continues to improve the airport.

According to an  economic impact study  by the W.P. Carey School of Business in 2012, direct impact of Sky Harbor International Airport was $9.5 billion in 2011. Terminal concessions accounted for $53.6 million of revenue in that year while airport businesses, including retail shops, food service and auto rental, employed some 4,073 people.

"Having an international airport in a major city is absolutely essential," James said.

Charles Craig, director of culinary standards for Fox Restaurant Concepts, oversees the company's four food and beverage outlets at the airport. Fox Restaurant Concepts currently operates a dozen restaurant brands in states including Arizona, Colorado, California and Kansas.

Craig said while there are many differences and challenges for a company opening an airport location, the benefits such as increased exposure outweigh those concerns.

"It's always busy at the airport," he said.

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