Airports still hot venue for limited-service brands

| by S.A. Whitehead
Airports still hot venue for limited-service brands

Airports are the No.1 non-traditional expansion market for QSR brands, according to the 2017 QSR State of the Industry report. And Austin, Texas, has positioned itself to be in the center of the action, announcing, this week, plans to open a food hall at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. 

HMSHost obtained Austin City Council approval for a 10-year food and beverage contract to build a food hall anchored by Texas-based Torchy's Tacos, according to information from the company.

HMSHost is partnering with D.C. Garrett Group to bring the project to reality, with HMSHost serving as operator of nine restaurant locations in the airport's new international terminal. In a city where bumper stickers implore residents to "Keep Austin Weird," the boisterous food hall plan may prove to be a real winner. 

"We couldn't be more excited to be entering the diverse and vibrant city of Austin with this new partnership with the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport," HMSHost President and CEO Steve Johnson said in the information on the project. "We're very much looking forward to bringing travelers a dynamic mix of local restaurants and dining experiences that truly reflect Austin, and we thank the airport for this great opportunity."

In a tribute to the nation's longest-running TV music series, "Austin City Limits" on PBS, the airport's new "live-action" food hall will fall under the label of the Austin City Kitchen. It features a new-age market, taproom and live-action kitchens that add the excitement of the restaurant food preparation process to the culinary center's ambiance. 

The food hall will also include Noble Sandwich Co., Sushi-A-Go-Go by Komé, Jugo Juice, Starbucks and casual brands, 24 Diner and Parkside. Austin Beerworks' taproom, The Beer Drop, will also be represented with a venue that will teach travelers all about craft beer from the brewery masters themselves. It hall also features Hardies Fresh Foods market for grab-and-go produce that is literally "on the fly." Finally, the hall will, of course, feature a main stage for live music. 

"Dannon Garrett and I are extremely excited to be entering into our first travel concessions venture with HMSHost right here in our hometown of Austin," D.C. Garrett Group Principle Partner Rick Garret said in the release. "With our 15 years of street-side experience, we plan to make a valuable contribution to the Austin-Bergstrom dining experience."

"Austin is a forward-thinking culinary city and the new restaurants we'll soon open will showcase the best mix of culinary offerings reflective of this unique place," HMSHost Vice President of Business Development Anthony Alessi said in information about the project. 

This massive project, for which neither financial information or a timeline were provided, is yet another sign of the popularity of the airport's captive audience as an expansion territory for restaurants. In fact, as mentioned,in this year's QSR State of the Industry report, those polled selected "airports" as their No. 1 choice for expansion in 2018, suggesting there may be more stories like this one in Austin. 

In that respect, HMSHost is well-positioned, since the company operates in more than 120 airports around the globe and 99 travel plazas in North America. If this type of food-and-drink-centered project does indeed prove to be a trend, it could return airports to places of entertainment, much like some were most recently in the late 1970s.

But that was a time before the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001, when airports were places where even the non-traveling public could go for a sense of excitement and dining alongside views of the jets and travelers coming and going.

In these post-9-11 times when terrorism has converted airports into virtual lock-ups for pre-flight and laid-over travelers, it remains to be seen whether those waiting-to-board consumers can support full-scale entertainment venues like the one planned in Austin. But anyone who has been in an airport of any size lately knows they're all packed to the gills with a captive audience, so certainly there's a good population of hungry consumers available there.

Whether there are enough of those travelers with time and cash on hand to while away a few hours in a food hall or similar venue remains to be seen, but there's certainly some fun to be had when venues like the one planned for Austin come into reality in the meantime.

Photo: iStock


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Financial News, Franchising & Growth, Operations Management, QSR Report, Trends / Statistics

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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