Why Even the Best Restaurant Concepts Fall Flat in Airports

Austin’s airport is known for only local food offerings, well except for Schlotzsky’s Deli
& Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s pretzels. I don’t love Austin Java coffee. Salt Lick barbecue isn’t great barbecue and it doesn’t translate well to the airport (the DFW airport location is worse). Options should get better, though.

We’re getting a Second Bar & Kitchen (downtown location is very good upscale bar food). Now comes news of tacodeli and Peached Tortilla (very good Asian fusion) outposts, both local stars, and Jo’s Coffee well-known for the “I love you so much” wall at its South Congress location.

In Austin you’re either a Tacodeli or a Torchy’s fan. I’m somewhere in between. Torchy’s has better guacamole and queso, but Tacodeli uses much better ingredients for its tacos.

Cat's out of the bag. #openingsoon #austinbergstrom #airport

A post shared by Eric Silverstein (@projectpeached) on

We have a United Club and an American club, American’s is set for remodel though that’s been delayed for many months. The putting green will be removed with check-in moved forward. The current large check-in space will then become part of the lounge for more seating. It gets super busy on peak travel days and before the British Airways flight in the evening.

My wish would be for an in-airport dry cleaner, barber shop (DFW is kicking out theirs) and drug store/grocery store. New York JFK of course has a dentist who helps patients join the ‘Smile High Club’.

There’s a brand new terminal at the airport, the ‘you can’t get there from here’ South Terminal, which so far serves only Allegiant but offers rotating food trucks.

Food trucks can deliver close to the same experience parked at the airport as off site, although there are restrictions even there for anything that’s going to be past security.

In general though the very best restaurant concepts fall flat inside airports.

  • There are limits on when things can be brought in, they can’t generally bring supplies down the concourse at peak travel times. So you don’t get the freshest just-in-time delivery.

  • And space limitations are huge. Not only can’t you bring things in whenever you want, you often don’t have a lot of space for storage at least compared to a standard retail location. And you may not have room for specialized equipment.

  • 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).

  • When you run a restaurant inside an airport you have a large number of people who need to be served quickly — you need to prepare for quick service even trumping quality because of the pressures of flight departures.

  • Your customers have varying tastes, they didn’t travel to your location to eat your food they are at your location in order to travel. But you need to cater to their varied preferences.

Airport rents are astronomical, it’s a volume and turnover business. You’re space and ingredients constrained. So menus are limited and accessible to the largest number of people. Restaurants known for lunch and dinner need to and are often required to do breakfast too.

And never underestimate the ability of Delaware North (in Austin’s case, but there are other companies like OTG) to hire the worst people. These are restaurant concepts and partnerships, not the restaurants themselves coming in and managing an airport location. Like CBGB’s at Newark.

Of course a handful of places manage to transcend this, arguably Cat Cora’s Kitchen, One Flew South, or Tortas Frontera.

It’s not that it can’t be done, just don’t set your expectations high and don’t bet on success.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This is fascinating. I never considered how the security aspect of airport restaurants can be so limiting. Thanks for the insight.

  2. sometimes your relentless Criticisms over reach….. Barber shop in airports? sounds great but most people want to pay 10 dollars If that…..certainly doesn’t cover the cost of the Lease and they are not doing it for Charity. airport…..Transportation Center getting A-to-B with a lot of whacky people that seem Clueless on basic Common Sense and Manners.

  3. @Reese I am talking my wish and DFW has had a barber shop for many years. Major hubs internationally have supported real drug storea and grocery not just 7-11..

  4. “And never underestimate the ability of Delaware North (in Austin’s case, but there are other companies like OTG) to hire the worst people. ”

    I don’t know if it is just bad decisions or if it is the job market (though they do have low wages). How many talented chefs want to go to work where they are required to pass through a TSA checkpoint every day? Even in airport with SIDA badges or other faster entry mechanisms, it is hard to attract good talent to work at an airport restaurant unless you can over-pay them, which OTG and DNC likely won’t do.

  5. @Ron it’s still a franchise chain of over 350 restaurants and indeed what’s local about the food itself? Indeed, what’s Austin about a deli? It’s rather not very good deli even outside the airport.

  6. Gary Schlotzsky’s was founded in Austin, just because it has a larger footprint then other local places doesn’t mean its not local.

  7. I love bbq & have to disagree on Salt Lick. I would get 2 sandwiches, 1 for now & 1 for later when flying into Austin. The IAH location was bad and is no longer open, but thought the Austin location was perfect. Even the guy that was chocking the other day and saved by the Chicago Bear linebacker continued to eat the same sandwich he had been choking on.

    Good story otherwise.

  8. I remember thinking the last time I flew through AUS, and had the time to eat dinner, that the “all local” thing didn’t really seem to matter. It was clear that the several vastly different restaurant concepts grouped together were being run by the same restaurant management company, which negatively impacted the food preparation and speed of service or lack thereof. It was so bad that I would have actually preferred a well-run fast serve concept like Chick-Fil-A or even McD’s.

  9. I completely agree with you on having a drugstore in the airport. As silly as this may sound having a Rite Aid store at my home airport (PIT) is incredible and the best part is that they charge the same prices for snacks, drugs and other stuff as if you were shopping at a local Rite Aid. I am sure the PIT Hudson News shop managers despite the PIT Rite Aid.

    PIT also has a post office post security, I don’t know if any other airport has that, but having one is also nice. This probably appeals more to the high attorney traffic that passes through PIT (KL Gates and Reed Smith are HQ here) that needs to mail original legal documents. One less errand I need to worry about before or after the airport.

  10. Qatar’s DOH/HIA airport has similar issues. I was in the Al Safwa Lounge (Qatar Airway’s first class lounge) the December before last and the kitchen was live cooking steak and searing scallops over live flame. AWESOME food was the result. Anyways, fast forward today and health and safety have put an end to gas fires :_(

  11. I understand that the AUS AA club desperately needs the space, but it will be a shame to see the putting green go. That has been an Austin tradition for a long time.

  12. @Gary Article fail. Amy’s Ice cream (like Schlotz) also has other locations outside of Austin. I was at UT when the airport got built. They wanted Austin “based” companies in the airport. And your comment on Salt Lick is laughable. Real Texans know the BBQ is good (not the best to other Austin places like Franklin’s) and the sides are terrible.

  13. gary you are such a veteran at generating the clicks! Taking a position on BBQ in Austin! How dare you say Salt Lick is not that great! ( Although I happen to agree). That said, very little prevents me from getting some breakfast brisket taco before an early flight home.

    I still love whats left of the ambience at Ironworks, and their beef rib. Brisket a little more hit or miss but usually good. Life is too short for the monkey business it takes to eat Franklin’s…

    The putting green is a total waste, hardly anyone under 40 golfs anymore. (As a former golf industry person, take it from me). I rely on the Admirals club in Austin no matter who I’m flying so glad to hear a reno is happening.

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