Jawbreakers the size of baseballs. Fine lingerie. Live music. Food trucks. Coal-fired pizza.

Travelers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport have their choice of nearly 50 new retailers and restaurants added over the past year.

And more changes are coming. The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which operates MSP, could vote as soon as Monday on 30 additional eateries, ranging from local burger joint Blue Door Pub to Cinnabon to a new upscale concept from the owner of Minneapolis’ Butcher & the Boar.

Combined, it is the greatest turnover of airport concession space since 2004.

The idea is to lure travelers to the airport a tad earlier than usual, and woo those on layovers from their gates to buy more than fast food, bottles of water, magazines and souvenirs. With some 37 million passengers annually, MSP is the nation’s 16th-busiest airport — a city unto itself, with captive consumers inside its secure area.

There’s big money in such a strategy. The global airport retail market is predicted to reach $90 billion by 2023, according to the California firm Credence Research.

While much of that growth is expected to occur in countries with emerging economies, such as China, India and Brazil, expanding existing airports’ retail areas will spur growth stateside, the firm said.

MAC pulls in more than $200 million in annual sales from concessions, and concessionaires pay more than $30 million a year in rent.

The first phase of the airport’s overhaul, which occurred largely in Terminal One (Lindbergh), placed a strong emphasis on local brands — some well known in the Twin Cities, others a bit more obscure. This is a powerful marketing strategy for both the airport and the region, said Liz Grzechowiak, the MAC’s assistant director of Concessions and Business Development.

“We want the coolest, hottest brands with on-trend food and beverage offerings,” she said. “I think we hit it out of the park in phase one.”

The process itself, completed in 2015 after bids were submitted by concessionaires, was highly competitive, leaving some bruised feelings among restaurateurs and retailers who did not make the cut.

“It was a bit of a free-for-all,” said MAC Chairman Dan Boivin. Members of the commission are furiously lobbied by those who want to set up shop at MSP, he said, although the commission has rules against them accepting gifts and services. “I’m a very popular guy at the moment,” Boivin said, noting rules don’t preclude airport wannabes from contacting commissioners.

An Airports Commission meeting on prospective vendors for the second phase earlier this month stretched on for more than five hours and involved a persnickety level of detail.

Local flavor

As it turned out, the first phase’s highly visible anchor — where Chili’s was located on the Terminal One mall — is now a new restaurant called Stone Arch created by Twin Cities restaurant owner Ryan Burnet and the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. Other local businesses represented in the first wave include LoLo American Kitchen, Salty Tart, Black Sheep Coal Fired Pizza, Angel Food Bakery, Flirt Boutique and Open Book, among others.

There’s a nod to the Twin Cities’ burgeoning food truck scene on Concourse E, with Red Cow burgers, Holy Land Deli and Salty Tart occupying refurbished food trucks and an Airstream trailer.

St. Paul’s McNally Smith College of Music partnered with the restaurant Republic on Concourse D to offer live music during peak hours four evenings a week. MSP is the third airport in the country — beyond Austin and Nashville — to feature regularly scheduled live music.

“People love it,” reports Chris Osgood, McNally’s vice president of Community Relations. “You can just see them lighten up, they’re smiling and it brings business to Republic.”

It’s also a paid gig for McNally students, he notes, “and they get fed.”

Big Mac miscue

But not all travelers want to eat local food, some may prefer chain restaurants and fast food. “Unquestionably, you need well-known chains,” said George John, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “If you are traveling with three kids and everyone is hungry, French Meadow Bakery probably won’t work for you.”

In 2010, two McDonald’s outlets shuttered on Concourse G after Delta Air Lines decided not to renew the company’s lease. The airport’s dominant carrier said it wanted more “polished” restaurant concepts instead.

Much dismay among fast-food-loving travelers ensued — and nearly two years later, McDonald’s returned to the airport.

“There’s always an issue of trying to find a balance between local and national concepts,” said Boivin. “There are some on the commission who want all the concepts to be local, and keep the money local. I think we need a blend.”

And not all travelers want to shop at an airport.

“I’m not going to shop here unless it’s a necessity like earbuds or a pillow,” said Chicago resident Eric Wu, who was visiting the Twin Cities.

Challenges abound

It can be a challenge to attract employees for a retail store at the airport and to determine a merchandise mix suited to travelers, said Jessica Gerard, owner of Flirt Boutique, a purveyor of fine lingerie, jewelry and bath products that has a store in the Terminal One mall and in St. Paul.

“Nobody wants to work at the airport, it takes forever to get there, to park, or you have to take the train, and then go through security,” Gerard said.

Plus, store hours begin very early in the morning and stretch to the evening, and the airport is open 365 days a year.

Flirt’s biggest customers at MSP hail from foreign countries or are business travelers, a notoriously difficult buyer to attract in an airport.

Still, Gerard says she’s continually tweaking her strategy, including adding swimwear this fall. “A lot of people think we’re Victoria’s Secret, and we’re trying to show them we’re not,” she said. “Once people realize there’s great shopping at the airport, maybe they’ll leave a little earlier to get here.”

 

janet.moore@startribune.com 612-673-7752