Delaware North Concepts Offer Airports a Restaurant Upgrade

Upscale options for travelers

••• Atlanta's Grindhouse Killer Burgers. Photo: Delaware North Travel Hospitality

I’ve done a series of posts here on airport food options ranging from gourmet and specialty restaurants to quick food and snack outlets. Kevin Kelly, president of concessions operator Delaware North Travel Hospitality, says his company is tapping into the desire of travelers to have more sophisticated and local fare by bringing new concepts to the airports they serve.

Travelers have become more sophisticated because our culture has, said Kelly.

“Travel has exposed us to regional and international foods. Go to any location, and you’ll see, for example, that baseball stadiums aren’t just serving hot dogs,” he said. “Our industry has learned that a variety in food offerings and selections can bring more overall value.”

Airports are offering this in everything from quick-service casual and coffee up to full-service restaurants, said Kelly. “We’ve evolved as an industry where we can now optimize revenue and improve experiences by offering more choices,” he said.

One concept is the Atlanta Stillhouse, at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s Concourse T.  It’s the only place outside of Kentucky that has more than 30 bourbons available for travelers to taste. The bar has 10 choices of bourbons flights to give the passengers opportunity to walk the bourbon trail in Atlanta.  

Delaware North originally wanted to partner with bourbon maker Jim Beam  when developing the restaurant, said Kelly.

“The airport said we couldn’t name the location after an alcohol maker. But we had a relationship with Jim Beam,” he said. “So we decided to do a menu around Jim Beam bourbon and we had their designer come and give the restaurant the feel of it.”

The restaurant does Jim Beam tastings, said Kelly. “Travelers say what a pleasant surprise it is to see a bourbon tasting,” he said.

“It takes the drabness out of the airport experience, and it’s been very well received.”

Another example of sophisticated fare can be found at DeSano Pizza, located at South Carolina’s Charleston International Airport in Terminal 4. it features European-style tables that bring diners together for a communal feel, and the restaurant brings pizza dough to the table for kids to play with.  

Airports are also bringing their best local restaurant concepts to the terminal, said Kelly. “The airport is a portal into the community. It’s the first thing you see when arriving at a city, and when you leave, it’s an opportunity to try out concepts that you may want to visit when you return,” he said. “Communities are really leveraging the fact that an airport offers accessibility and see it as a great way to introduce folks to the area.”

For example, when Delaware North develops a burger concept, it will check social networks, said Kelly. “We’ll have dinner at 10 different places to find the best ones,” he said.

One of those concepts is Grindhouse Killer Burgers, at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Concourse D. The restaurant features fresh ground meat that is sourced from local businesses.

But working with local concepts can be a challenge, because streetside restaurants operate differently in the airport environment, said Kelly. “Airports have smaller kitchen footprints, and there’s a stronger emphasis on employees having a speedy service, which is important,” he said. “We work with the owners to convert their brands in a nontraditional space. Some like the challenge and some just have to throw up their hands.”

Other popular local concepts include Casavana Restaurant, which offers authentic Cuban cuisine at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Bardenay, an outpost of a popular restaurant serving upscale northwest cuisine and regional and local craft beers at Idaho’s Boise Airport.

This trend is really strong, said Kelly. “We see airports moving from McDonalds to Smashburger.

The service level is different and even the presentation is different,” he said. “These burgers are not wrapped and put in a bag. They are serving it on a plate with craft paper.”

Whether it’s a burger or pizza concept, or a farmers market sandwich or a fresh salad, airports are offering more of fast-casual restaurants with plenty of choice, said Kelly. “We’ll see a lot more of this going forward. We’ll see restaurants that more reflect the local market,” he said.