When was the last time you flew somewhere just to check out the airport? If the answer is 'never,' then a new trend sweeping the U.S. might make you reconsider. From Denver to Long Beach to San Antonio, more and more airports are trading out old, generic food courts for diverse, high-quality offerings that reflect the local flavor. Creating partnerships with major concession operators, these 'hyper-local' vendors are combating the anonymous airport experience by providing a unique sense of place – not to mention an excellent meal – before and after passengers board the plane.
When Denver International Airport realized last year that many of the leases for its food and beverage outlets were set to expire, officials seized a unique opportunity to overhaul 75% of its concessions. Explains DIA's Chief Commercial Officer John Ackerman: "We're bringing in a new blend of local Denver brands and concepts that will completely transform the character of the airport."
Indeed, in the past six months, a dozen or so new restaurants have opened, including an outpost of the Denver-based Elway's Steakhouse. With several locations in Denver and another one in Vail, the popular airport eatery (which is owned by former NFL star John Elway) gets so busy on weekends, there is often a wait list to get inside. On top of that, there's the upcoming Steve's Snappin' Dogs, which began life as a hot dog stand in downtown Denver, and Udi's Cafe and Bar, whose line of gluten-free treats was recently acquired by Smart Balance.
A similar thing is happening at San Diego International Airport, where 71 new restaurants and shops are expected to open between now and early 2014 – including the city's first in-terminal spa. In June, SDIA debuted Craft Brews on 30th Street, a restaurant and bar inspired by San Diego's lively 30th Street Corridor, and which features a range of seasonal and year-round beer selections from local breweries like Ballast Point, Coronado Brewing Co., Green Flash and Left Coast.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, the trend is manifesting itself in sleek new concourses, ice cream shops, and Mexican street food eateries.
Over in Long Beach, CA, a new 35,000-square-foot concourse debuted in December that aims to provide a "locally flavored, resort-like experience." The built-in SoCal vibe is reinforced by a palm tree-filled garden with fire pits, as well as the food vendors themselves, almost all of whom are well-established, local operations. McKenna's On the Fly, which offers steak, seafood, sandwiches, and shareable appetizers, is an offshoot of the flagship on North Marina, while the menu at Taco Beach Cantina is the same one you'll find at their well-known Pines Avenue location.
In May, JFK unveiled a shiny new Terminal 4, which delighted foodie travelers with an outpost of Danny Meyers' mega-popular fast food chain Shake Shack (the brand's second-ever airport locale, after Dubai). Other buzz-worthy outlets include Cake Tin Bakery and two Marcus Samuelsson venues opening this fall, Uptown Brasserie, and Street Food.
Things have been particularly busy over at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where a new food court is scheduled to open in Concourse B this December. Similar to Denver, many of the airport's food and beverage contracts expired last year, paving the way for 10 new concessions – seven of which will be Atlanta-based vendors. For instance, LottaFrutta, a locally-owned fresh fruit and ice cream shop, was one of the first new spots to open, though more are planned: Paschal's, a Southern-style joint founded in 1947, and Gabriel's Desserts, a favorite in the suburb of Marietta, will both open before the year is over.
Over at San Antonio International Airport, Terminal A is currently being renovated, with a planned agreement to launch seven new restaurant and retail store locations within the terminal. The new openings are part of a larger effort to showcase San Antonio's burgeoning culinary scene, and they include the Mexican street food-inspired La Gloria (think tacos al pastor, tlayudas, tortas, and coteles de mariscos), as well as Mission City Icehouse, an already-established downtown San Antonio venue serving local brews and spirits, sandwiches, and salads.