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.

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. Tortas Fronteras is the best. Agree with you 100% that it does, on occasion, influence my connection point. And when i’m actually going to or from Chicago, I’ll get to the airport early on my departure for food from Tortas.

  2. Whenever I see the words “Delaware North”, my sphincter tightens. If there is a company that has managed to be more successful putting out a crappier, overpriced product, I’m not sure I want to know about it. But I’ll take nominations. (FWIW, Delaware North once claimed in a lawsuit that they owned the name “Yosemite National Park”.)

    I rarely connect through Atlanta, mainly flying AA, but if I do, I make sure I have enough time to hit One Flew South.

  3. What terminal?

    Asking for a friend who may or may not be choosing their flights based on the airport food…

  4. @C_M – yes, those idiots claimed to own the name Yosemite. When they lost the concession there they sued over use of the name. The government changed the signs inside the park at a cost of $1.7 million, continued to use the name *for the park*, and moved to cancel the marks.

  5. I could have written this article myself lol. O’Hare is whatever, but it’s worth travelling through there just to eat at Tortas Frontera, I love it so much. Loved reading about the logistics behind its creation, thanks for sharing!

  6. I’m still bummin over the loss of the only BBQ place at IAH. I think they ran them off because it smelled too good!

  7. Confession time – I actually prefer to fly via ORD after transatlantic trips specifically to eat at the Panda Express in T3. There is nothing I crave more than American Chinese food after spending time in Europe.

  8. Would be nice if Delaware North, HMS and OTG didn’t get the full contract. Perhaps some competition will stop them from being bottom of the barrel.

  9. Airports: Pay us this inflated price for rent.

    Also Airports: You have to charge street pricing for your products.

    And they wonder why people are upset with lousy products. I’m all in favor of street pricing ($4 for water is crazy), but the airports need to take a look at what they are doing to affect things.

  10. Denver, home of Scary Horse and friends, has really upped it’s game on good eats. All the terminals either have good food now, and more is coming.

  11. This article is incomplete without Gary throwing in a reference to Ben’s Chili Bowl.

  12. Very bummed they changed the menu recently and the Pepito is gone! Had to get soup and salad last time I was there (which were also great, but not the same as a short rib sandwich…).

  13. Last two connections at Ord were early morning. Frontera didn’t open until late morning. Really disappointed us. Wish it was open for breakfast.

  14. Common misconception: “Electric cook tops The airport may not permit gas ovens, so everything has to get re-created using electric.”

    Newer Induction cooktops are as good as gas. Don’t let a snooty chef tell you otherwise. They can be very much, set in their ways.

    Now those other electric cooktops that glow like a pumpkin…yea, they stink.

  15. @OldKingCole – I am a serious amateur cook and always prefer gas, but there’s a chance I will move somewhere where gas isn’t available, and I’ll go with an induction. Yes, I’ve used conventional electrics, and they suck.

    Commercial cooking, however, is something else, and there’s more than just the stovetop to consider. Speed is essential, and I’m not sure induction is quite as fast or responsive. It’s good enough for someone like me, but a professional kitchen is something else, and I respect professionals too much to think I am one. There are also things in professional kitchens that amateurs almost never have like salamanders. There are electric ones, but are they as good as gas? Most reviews say that are different. And anytime something is different, there’s a learning curve and/or inferior results. From what I’ve read, electric woks are a disaster in a professional kitchen and I don’t know there are any that work with induction, though someone can educate me.

    For you and me at home, induction is probably fine 98% of the time. Professional chefs, they need to get it right 100% of the time. You and I can get away with an electric piano or violin, the professional is still going to want the Steinway or Strad. They make their money with that extra 2%.

    @Ryan – Your cilantro sensitivity is your problem. Deal with it and stop whining for the world to change. Should he provide a vegan, kosher, and halal based tortas also, complete with entirely separate kitchens and food storage, if he doesn’t want to?

  16. @C_M As someone who ran a high volume 5 diamond hotel with a huge c&b operation, the induction cooktops are more responsive to temp change because they do not have any heat build up in the unit. They heat up just as fast and cool down instantly. We got rid of all of our gas units in c&b and went to induction in 2008. By the time I left in 2014, the only things we had that still ran on gas were woks and tandoors in our Asian outlets. Gas ovens and stoves break down faster so what we paid extra for in utilities, we got back in longevity. Being in a low energy cost area helped that a lot though. Gas will stay on in high cost areas because it’s cheaper on a daily basis.

  17. @Frank – Thanks for the pro input. That’s good to know. Kind of figured woks were a problem. Didn’t know about tandoors. And good to know about energy costs – that can be a factor in a pro kitchen, at home, it’s not a big deal.

    What did you do about salamanders?

  18. ORD is my home airport and Tortas Frontera is why I book AA vs UA. Plus Rick Bayless shows up – he actually comes to the airport and taste tests everything. Shockingly surprised the first time I saw him behind the counter!

  19. Thanks for this article and the details behind Tortas Frontera. For years passing through ORD I’ve been sure to stop by for a cocktail and meal or picked up something for the next flight. Have shared the tip w every traveler I’ve met heading through ORD, too. Ironically, 2 weeks ago I finally got to downtown and dinner at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill. Glad to know though that TF is not going anywhere.

  20. Also good at ORD are the Farmers Fridge vending machines. Although expensive, it has surprisingly been some of the best airport food (and vending machine food) I’ve eaten.

  21. HMSHost, Delaware North, and OTG. Why is it that these three are in seemingly EVERY possible place to turn a $1 Luna bar from Trader Joe’s into a $4 at the Austin airport gift shop.

    Airport security logistics aside why does every airport authority have to put this middleman operation between themselves and the flying public just to create an overpriced Burger King in an airport?

  22. askmrlee, where are you shopping outside the airport that Luna Bars are only $1, because I would like to go to there.

  23. @Gary: ” 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,”

    Give an example of such a restaurant excluded for anything other than economics. I think you’ll find that what is in the airport is what people eat. Only 5% of the country are gourmets, so you wouldn’t expect them at the airport.

  24. I am happy that JetBlue has LAX-BUF non-stop so I don’t have to possibly go through O’Hare.

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