There are few places in the world where humans feel more like lab rats than at the airport. Weave your way through a maze of ticket desks, security checkpoints and terminal gates and what's your reward? A slice of soggy pizza or greasy burger that'll sit like a brick in your stomach for the next few hours of flight. Almost anyone in his right mind would prefer a block of cheese.
Americans spent over $3 billion on food and drinks in airports in 2009, according Airport Revenue News, and, thankfully, an increasing number of concession services are doing more to reward travelers tired of measly menu choices.
In late August Delta opened 4 of the 13 new eateries planned for its La Guardia terminal, which is set to include a gourmet food hall where travelers can design their own pizza, grab a porterhouse steak or slurp oysters at a raw bar. Earlier in the month Los Angeles International hosted a posh downtown "eat in" of new menu items from the chefs and owners of area restaurants who hope to be in place when terminal renovations are complete. And Chicago chef Rick Bayless, who has been long content to limit his Mexican food empire to the city's downtown, has just announced the opening of two new restaurants at O'Hare.
"We have to go through the maze, and at some point, you have to eat," says Joe Brancatelli, a business-travel consultant who runs the website joesentme.com and just released his annual list of the best airport food options available across the country. Despite this, Brancatelli says he doesn't enjoy eating in airports — "airports by definition aren't great places to eat" — but admits that things are getting better.
Brancatelli says one improvement he's seen at airport eateries is the rejiggering of pricing by concession owners to stop gouging travelers and instead reflect "street prices" similar to what you'd pay in a city's downtown.
That's more complicated than it sounds. Most people don't realize that "it's much more expensive to operate a restaurant in an airport," says Pauline Armbrust, CEO of Airport Revenue News. "Think about how difficult it is to get an item in beyond security — all deliveries have to come in a specific way, and everything has to be inventoried. Logistically it's much more complex and costly."
That said, Brancatelli notes that even if a hamburger is "street priced," if it tastes worse than what you'd buy on the street, you'll inevitably feel like you've been overcharged. That's why he appreciates the growing number of eateries offering local fare, from Dish D'Lish in Seattle's Sea-Tac airport to Salt Lick BBQ in Austin-Bergstrom International airport.
"It's the same companies running the concessions, they've just gotten smarter," he says, creating partnerships with local eateries and chains to bring a taste of the city to the airport terminal.
Tom Smith, spokesperson for Airport Council International, concurs, saying that historically all of an airport's concessions have been contracted out to one client. But with many of the contracts expiring at major airports, they're taking the opportunity to rethink their food options and bring in "new blood and creativity in their restaurants," sometimes by contracting with several vendors at once. "It benefits the traveler in that there's greater variety," he says. "And it benefits the airport, as they're able to collect higher rents."
Of course, while the big airport hubs are currently making headlines, many smaller airports have been incorporating local menus for several years. "I'm often really impressed with a small city's airports," says food and travel writer Adam Graham, who says he's found fantastic lobster wraps at the Shipyard Pub at Portland Maine's jetport. "It's a nice break from the traditional roll, and easier to bring on board the plane."
At San Jose Airport, they sell cherries within the terminal from a local farm. "It's a good thing to bring someone as a souvenir," Graham says. Local farmers markets are also sprouting up outside airports in Cincinnati and Sedona.
"Many concession companies are to bringing in fresh fruits and salads and using local vendors and products in their foods," says Armbrust. Passengers want to feel a sense of place and get a taste of the local community."
Brancatelli agrees. "If you're in a city laying over — airports are artificial enough," he says. "You might as well go for a taste of something real."