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An Entrepreneur Brings Upscale Restaurants to Airports

The terminal case of sorry sandwiches that travelers must suffer through in most airports may finally be sent packing.
February 22, 2011
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/218102

The knives give it away. Constructed from TSA-mandated plastic, not steakhouse steel, they dispel the illusion that my New York strip is being served at a top-tier Manhattan restaurant and remind me that we're just past security at LaGuardia Airport's Terminal D.

Everything else here at Michael Lomonaco's Prime Tavern, from the solicitous service and extensive wine list to the quality of the beef, would pass muster at Lomonaco's Porter House, the critically acclaimed carnivorium in Manhattan's glittery Time Warner Center. And why shouldn't it? The celebrity chef helped create the Prime Tavern concept, train the staff and write the menu. I'm told he even turns up occasionally to cook the food.

As a frequent business traveler, I'm accustomed to suffering through airport meals from bland national chains that all seem to offer the same four appetizers and entrees. So the idea of getting housemade condiments and nightly specials, never mind a shot at finding a famous face actually working in the kitchen, is a pulse-quickening thrill.

"But this isn't an airport restaurant, it's a restaurant that happens to be in an airport," says Rick Blatstein, the CEO and guiding spirit of OTG Management, the restaurant company responsible for Prime Tavern and the other concessions at Delta Airlines' Terminal D. "Michael is using the same meat here that he uses at Porter House. We have a full menu and specials every night. And we charge street prices, not airport prices."

Slideshow: Dining On-The-Fly
A look at some of the best airport restaurants around the country.

At Terminal D, OTG has partnered with well-known chefs and restaurateurs on the most ambitious selection of restaurants at any American airport. Bisoux, a Provençal bistro by the team behind New York's renowned Balthazar, began serving its duck confits and niçoise salads late last year, the same time that Prime Tavern opened. Coming soon are concepts from, among others, Andrew Carmellini of Locanda Verde, Jamison Blankenship of Morimoto, Chris Cannon of Alto and L'Impero and Jason Denton of 'inoteca and Corsino. These aren't the typical national names, the Wolfgangs and Emerils, that usually show up as project headliners. Terminal D features successful New York restaurateurs who want to give their LaGuardia projects the attention they deserve. "It's just like opening a new restaurant in another part of town," Blatstein says.

He takes a bite of his salmon, broiled to a perfect carnation pink. "Why hasn't this been done before? I have no idea. We're doing something really wonderful, the traveling public is embracing it, and it seems so obvious to me. But it took me 10 years to convince airports and airlines. Finally, they're getting it."

It might be hard for today's frequent traveler to believe, but some of America's best restaurants were once located in airports. New Yorkers who weren't even planning to fly would travel to Idlewild, the precursor to John F. Kennedy International Airport, for dinner at the Golden Door. The circular Seven Continents served Chicago's O'Hare International Airport from 1963 into the 1990s. At the Theme Room in Los Angeles in the 1960s, a waitstaff wearing sarongs or lederhosen served authentic dishes from around the world. (Later, it evolved into a high-end French restaurant serving escargot and lobster fricassee.)

Air travel was luxurious then, and the linen tablecloths and multicourse meals that passengers enjoyed before and after flights provided a fitting counterpart to in-flight service of the same standard. But as deregulation brought exponentially more passengers to airports, those distinctive eateries eventually gave way to national brands selling high-volume food out of minimal kitchen space, much like those at a typical big-city sports arena. Ticket-holders who would have been happy to spend liberally on an expense-account dinner wandered around with money in their pockets, straining to find anything more enticing than an $8 roast beef sandwich and a glass of generic Chardonnay.

Denver International Airport, the most recent major aviation facility to open in the United States, debuted in 1995 without a single full-service dining venue, after someone had evidently concluded that fast food was all that passengers wanted. Since then, the situation has improved around the U.S. with the proliferation of Wolfgang Puck Cafes, which sell edible pizzas and salads, and outposts of popular regional chains--such as Legal Sea Foods in Boston and beyond, Philips on the mid-Atlantic seaboard, Anthony's in the Pacific Northwest--that operate with greatly reduced versions of their usual menus. Still, there's rarely anything satisfying to eat, and almost never anything truly interesting.

Blatstein, a former restaurant and nightclub owner, started in concessions in 1996 with Jet Rock, a bar and grill in the Philadelphia airport. "My headline acts," he says, "became Boeings and Airbuses, delivering customers directly to my door."

Futuristic Foodie: Chef Jason Denton at Bar Brace Cafe in New York's JFK.
Futuristic Foodie: Chef Jason Denton at Bar Brace Cafe in New York's JFK.

He expanded into other markets but wasn't able to implement his grand vision until OTG won the right to create a dramatic, multiconcept dining hall at JFK's Terminal 5, which is run by jetBlue. That opened in 2008, just as the stock market was cratering. Dining options include Piquillo, an authentic Spanish tapas bar, sushi from Buddakan's Michael Schulson, pasta from Del Posto's Mark Ladner and 29 other concepts (including a few national chains such as Jamba Juice and Dunkin' Donuts). Its $8 per-passenger "spend," according to Blatstein, ranks as the highest in the industry.

Terminal D constitutes the next step. The project is more ambitious than JFK's Terminal 5 because the passengers who step off Delta's planes are more likely to be businesspeople than those who've flown jetBlue.

"You see a lot more suits," Blatstein says. And LaGuardia is about 20 minutes closer to Manhattan by car, so it's the airport of choice for executives headed out of or into the city. The combination means at least a theoretical customer base of frequent travelers who don't balk at $40 restaurant entrees.

Few domestic routes offer complimentary meals anymore, so Terminal D also has a fast-food court for grab-and-go options. But these options will satisfy even the most finicky of NYC's self-proclaimed foodies. There are hamburgers from cult-favorite butcher Pat LaFrieda and pizza from Brooklyn's Dominick DeMarco.

"Imagine, this is our McDonald's," says OTG head chef Michael Coury as he bites into a chubby LaFrieda cheeseburger. "And this," he says, walking over to the World Bean coffee stand to show off its hand-built Slayer espresso machine, a gleaming piece of machinery with the lines of a Lamborghini, "is what we have instead of Starbucks."

The grand plan isn't to put Lomonaco and Denton in cities across the country, but to find similarly accomplished chefs and restaurateurs in every city. So Blatstein puts Coury in the air for 120,000 miles a year, letting him eat his way through North America while amassing concepts for OTG to pitch to airport authorities and other governing bodies as opportunities arise. "The concessions contracts at 90 percent of U.S. airports expire in the next 10 years," Blatstein says. "We strongly believe that customers will demand this change, and the industry will recognize it and respond."

A tasty ripple effect has already started. In Los Angeles, the British-based catering firm SSP presented the City Council with a proposal that would bring Patina Group's Joachim Splichal, Border Grill's Too Hot Tamales, Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery and Mozza, and other big-name Southern California chefs to four terminals at Los Angeles International Airport. Late last year, O'Hare debuted a full-service sushi and seafood bar in Terminal 2; $100 tabs for two are already commonplace.

"It doesn't have a celebrity chef," says Rosemarie S. Andolino, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation, "but it does have a master sushi chef. It's authentic, fresh and appealing. That's what we're looking for."

HMS Host also has contracted with Chicago's Rick Bayless (Topolobampo, Frontera Grill) to open fast-food and sit-down concepts elsewhere at O'Hare, and discussions with restaurateur Art Smith, formerly Oprah Winfrey's personal chef, are continuing. "People are spending much more time in airports now," Andolino says. "You want to be able to offer them a variety of options."

But Blatstein is the one pushing the envelope. These days, he only wants contracts with entire terminals so that OTG can control the overall dining atmosphere. Denton's Bar Brace is the centerpiece of Blatstein's most daring idea: converting a gate in Kennedy's Terminal 3 into a futuristic Italian café--without giving up the space's original function.

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Bar Brace: Redefining the pre-flight experience.

"It's the single largest piece of real estate at airports around the world and the most desirable location for a customer to be. Before this? It was doing absolutely nothing," he says.

The prototype opened at a single Delta gate just after Thanksgiving, and it is compelling. Rather than the usual spectator-style seating outfitted with rows of metal-and-plastic chairs, the gate has café tables and banquettes with electrical outlets, and touch-screen computers offering Internet access (to a range of preset websites). The café--with orders entered by iPad--serves small dishes and panini, as well as wines by the glass and cocktails. That means sipping your Negroni, scrolling through up-to-the-minute news stories and watching the game on DirecTV right up until the moment your row is called.

A slightly different prototype with a restaurant just outside the gate is in JFK's Terminal 2, and LaGuardia is scheduled to get one of each later this year. "Our view is that it's a game-changer in customer experience," says Wayne Aaron, Delta's vice president of marketing. "We've been very, very pleased by the initial reaction."

Kennedy was the perfect place for the experiment because Delta operates and owns the terminal. When OTG suggested blurring the line between concessions and gate space, the airline was able to give the all-clear. Replicating it elsewhere will be more challenging--the airline's relationship with each airport authority is different--but if consumers remain enthusiastic about the experience, similar concepts are likely to start appearing around the country.

And Blatstein's creative thinking extends beyond food and drink. As I was leaving Prime Tavern, I ran into Marcelo Surerus, who formerly ran the concierge program at Starwood's W Hotels. Blatstein hired him to install a concierge service for Delta VIPs at Terminal D. The black-clad staff will be available to make hotel reservations on the fly, meet late-arriving customers with ordered food and solve other problems travelers encounter along the way. If you're a top Delta customer with a tight connection or a special desire, you can call ahead, but Surerus stresses that anyone with a need will be taken care of. "Just like I'd do in the lobby of a hotel," he says, "except it's in an airport."

If facilities managers across the country can get beyond constraints in budget and space and adopt some of these innovations, the result would seem to be an enormous change for the better in how passengers experience air travel. As Blatstein describes it, flying sounds almost civilized again.

"Everyone has to go through security, there's nothing we can do about that," he says. "But once you get through, we're determined to make you forget that you're at the airport."

Plastic knives aside, he's off to an admirable start.