The Proper Care and Feeding of Your Airport Restaurant
We have all heard of the $100 Hamburger, but what is it behind the hamburger that makes an airport restaurant successful? Why are some airport restaurants wildly successful and others flame out in a short time? These are questions many airport managers ponder. We have all experienced the plethora of eatery options at our nation’s commercial service hub airports with their captive customer base behind security checkpoints, but what about our General Aviation (GA) and non-hub airports and their ongoing quest to keep their single airport restaurant in business? Seasonality, fluctuating passenger volumes, weather, the uniqueness of operating at an airport, as well as restaurant operators not wanting to take the risk, can all play into the success and failure of airport restaurants. So, what are things GA and non-hub airports can do to keep food options available for pilots and passengers and attract the local community? Here are six courses of action learned in the trenches of airport management that may help.
1. Make a Bridge to Your Community
The most enjoyable part of airport management for me was building bridges with the community. Getting folks to relate to the airport, acknowledge a connection, and feel they are receiving value from the facility can be one of the most rewarding challenges of airport management. Making your restaurateur a partner in your community outreach strategy can help make them successful, and can also help get your community, including local pilots and passengers, to relate to you and the important work you do every day at your airport.
2. The Secret is in the Sauce, and Lease too
If you are struggling to attract and/or keep a restaurant, your lease agreement may be the right place to start. First, decide what your goals are with your restaurant lease. If your goal is purely revenue generation, your lease may look different than if your goal is to build a bridge and attract your community to come to the airport. However, there are Grant Assurance requirements as well as local procurement and leasing guidelines that, to some extent, dictate the lease actions you can take. If your goal is to cultivate a successful airport restaurant as well as create a fun local community gathering place, here are a few items to consider in your lease:
- Do not compete with downtown locations on lease rates. The airport typically cannot demand the same lease rates as busy or downtown locations. Instead, offer a discounted lease rate from downtown locations and promote the benefits of your unique airport location, such as limited competition and a variety of patrons.
- Use a graduated lease. Assess a market rate as required but start at a lower lease rate and have it ramp up. Averaged over a three-to-five-year lease period, you will achieve the same market rate, but this strategy will allow the operator financial flexibility and incentive at the beginning of the lease.
- Give credit for investment. If a vendor is investing capital to improve your facility, take it into consideration when setting lease rates and duration of term.
- Consider forgoing a concession percentage for a first lease term or altogether. Incorporating an airport concession percentage on top of pricing may be stressful for restaurateurs. Sometimes airports also require “street pricing” in a lease, meaning a vendor cannot charge more than, say, 10% over non-airport locations. If vendors are trying to meet this requirement, as well as provide the airport a concession fee typically on gross revenue, it may be hard for them to find a successful model. However, once a restaurant is doing well, it is appropriate to incorporate a concession percentage for the airport into a lease renewal. Make sure a future concession percentage option is part of the original lease agreement so you can have those conversations with your restaurants that become highly successful.
- Consider building out or updating your kitchen equipment. This can make or break a deal with a potential restaurant vendor. If they do not have the necessary tools to get the job done, it will be difficult to attract and sign someone. If you have an operationally ready space, you will find more success. That said, the vendor should be responsible for equipment upkeep and maintenance in your lease agreement. You do not want to be called when the dishwasher breaks or the grease trap needs cleaning.
3. Location! Location! Location!
It is fair to say that not many restaurateurs looking to open a successful eatery think of their local airport, but it can be a great place to find success. That said, there are a few items to keep in mind regarding your restaurant setting, including:
- The flight line. The restaurant needs to be close to the action! People need to see airplanes if they are coming to the airport for lunch. Flight line visibility is GOLD when it comes to atmosphere. The restaurant should embrace the aviation and aeronautical feel. The most successful GA airport restaurants do this – the restaurant name, branding, and even menu choices can be used to deliver an aviation-centric customer experience. If you match the atmosphere with good food, customer loyalty will prevail. One of my favorite examples of airport restaurants doing it right is Woody’s At the Airport at the Monterey Peninsula Airport in California, which has a great location and atmosphere right next to the flight line, and an outdoor observation deck. They also offer Woody’s Cockpit behind security with ample food offerings after you have passed through the TSA checkpoint.
- Security areas. Non-hub airports with security areas can be challenging, as you want reliable grub on both sides of the house. I would always have my restaurant on the landside as that is where a critical mass of needed customers will be, but striking a balance is possible. You can always ask your restaurant vendor to have a counter or grab-and-go option behind security too. I would pull out all stops to assure your restaurant has airside views, it adds greatly to all the aviation atmosphere items discussed above. I have seen too many vacant restaurant spaces at smaller non-hubs where the restaurant is in a dark corner or between the baggage claim and curbside. If there is nothing special about your location, you are fully dependent on the flying public to keep your food vendor aloft.
4. Yummy Food is a Must
This one is self-explanatory, but needs to be said. If your food stinks – figuratively and literally – that may be why the restaurant isn’t doing well. A quality eatery can put you on the map as a community destination and meeting place. Airport leadership should regularly sample the cuisine of their restaurateur to check that they are providing quality food and service at a decent price. If the food is lacking and service is lousy, airport users and your community will attach that stigma to your airport too. Again, your restaurateur is your community outreach partner.
One side note, be sure your restaurant offers catering to flight crews. Charter aircraft operators will pay a premium to get specific types of cuisine packaged in specific ways at unique hours of the day. This can be a lucrative business practice for the restaurant and airport. Not offering this service can be frustrating to charter operators and may reflect negatively on the airport and FBO, so consider it in your lease agreement.
5. Food Trucks are the Future
Say your airport has no kitchen space or a long-vacant restaurant – what to do? As of 2022, there were over 35,000 licensed food trucks in the U.S., up from 9,700 in 2012. As a $1.2 billion industry and growing, you probably have more than one in your community. Food trucks can be a strong tool to bring food to your airport in short order. Partnering on branding and marketing can be positive for both the airport and the food truck vendor. Having regular food truck hours or hosting a few food truck rallies at your airport can bring the public out and excite your local aviators to see something new at the airfield.
If you have a vacant restaurant space, consider offering the location to your food truck operators. Many need a commissary kitchen to meet local health code requirements. Provide them the space on the condition they serve lunch at your restaurant location. I had the honor of serving as the General Manager of the Truckee Tahoe Airport and this is exactly what we did when our food vendor abruptly left. We contacted our local food truck operators and one set up shop in our airport kitchen. They were so successful at our fixed location that they sold the food truck a few years later. Food truck operators and their chefs can provide exceptional food, and typically come with their own following. One of my favorites is Red Truck on the Runway at the Truckee Tahoe Airport near Lake Tahoe, CA. This is an exceptional GA restaurant right on the flight line with indoor and outdoor seating and a playground. This restaurant got its start as a food truck.
6. Have something for everyone
Not only can your restaurant nourish and sustain the traveling public but can be a tremendous asset and public outreach tool. In return, the restaurant will solidify its customer base. My recommendation is to do all you can to offer more than just food at your restaurant, find something for everyone. Here are a few ideas you can try to incorporate as part of your restaurant and airport terminal offerings to take your restaurant resiliency to the next level:
- Outdoor seating is a wonderful amenity. People love to enjoy lunch outdoors, gathering with friends and watching airplanes – but make sure to have shade!
- Pipe in your Air Traffic Control (ATC) or Unicom frequency on a minimal volume, allowing people to take in the full airport experience and adding a nice touch of ambiance.
- Be kid-friendly. This can mean anything from providing coloring books, to balsa wood gliders, to a full playground. If you have room and can swing it (pardon the pun), a full playground can be the #1 attracter of children and parents to your airport. Parents will seek out such locations where they can enjoy lunch with a friend while their kids play. Strategic fencing and grass are always a bonus to keep the little ones captive and in the vicinity of the restaurant. If you can pair your restaurant with your playground, your community outreach benefit will be turbocharged, and the restaurant’s bottom line will be greatly improved.
- Create a community space by offering an area for local groups and non-profits to host meetings while enjoying a meal, driving traffic to your airport.
- Bring the entertainment – corn hole, horseshoes, dare I say, pickle ball? You get the idea. These little touches will add to the atmosphere, boost brand recognition, and encourage returning customers.
The bottom line
How you view and leverage your airport restaurant may be a defining factor in a successful and resilient airport eatery. Prioritize your airport and your community by making your restaurant vendor a cornerstone that welcomes the flying public and local crowd. The bottom line is, airport restaurants can act as a defining feature of any GA or non-hub airport, with success reflecting fondly on the airport as a whole. Buen Provecho!