Airport food was the last thing Brian Anderson used to think about on travel days.
The frequent flier — he’s a global marketing manager in the medical device industry — departs from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport twice a month for business. As recently as three years ago, “I wouldn’t eat at the airport,” he said, bypassing “generic and stale” restaurants and national chains to seek out interesting local eats after he got to his destinations.
Now, he finds himself getting to MSP early before an evening flight so he can enjoy pizza from Minneapolis pie shop Black Sheep or a Minnesota craft beer from Stone Arch, both in Terminal 1.
Airport food has “definitely gotten better, and I definitely find myself building that into my schedule,” said Anderson, of Minneapolis.
That’s just what the Metropolitan Airports Commission is hoping for as it nears the close of a three-year, two-phase overhaul of its food and beverage and retail offerings.
Gone are the days when dreary grab-and-go sandwiches and greasy fast food were the only options past security. As airlines have cut back on in-flight food in recent years, airport terminals are coming to the rescue with a versatile buffet of culinary options — many of them with local connections.
Notable among the new restaurants opening at MSP are several familiar names from the vibrant Twin Cities dining scene, such as Jack Riebel of the Lexington, who consulted on the menu at the new full-service restaurant Cook & the Ox; retro eatery and celebrity magnet Hi-Lo Diner; and northeast Minneapolis’ PinKU, a Japanese street food spot that’s anchoring a dazzling new airport food court.
The inclusion of local restaurants here and around the country is transforming airports from transit gateways to micro-destinations in and of themselves, the better to lure travelers away from other major layover hubs.
“We’re competing against not just other airports; we’re competing against people making a choice: ‘Do I want my layover to be in Chicago or Detroit or Denver?’ ” said Liz Grzechowiak, who as assistant director of concessions and business development at MSP, works with local restaurateurs to bring their concepts to the airport.
Upgrading food and beverage options, along with shopping, at MSP is a sure way to “be a source of competitive advantage,” said Ahmed Maamoun, a marketing professor at the Labovitz School of Business and Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “For example, people book air tickets to get into Singapore Changi airport merely to shop there.”
The airport in Singapore and airports in Hong Kong and Doha began upgrading their food and beverage offerings two decades ago. “U.S. airports are only now starting to catch up,” Maamoun said, “and we are seeing more and more airports updating their terminals to provide upscale stores, fancy restaurants and sophisticated vending machines.
“Not only are airports starting to look like malls,” he added, “but they are thinking like them, too.”
Grzechowiak looks to the airports in Copenhagen, Seattle and San Francisco as inspirations for the local scene she is curating here. She’s aiming to represent Minnesota to the 40 million passengers making their way through MSP each year — especially when only a third of those passengers are from the state. What better way to do that than with wild rice soup, Juicy Lucys and local beer?
“The best way to know a culture is through food, and that’s true of the entire world,” Grzechowiak said. “And we’ve got a story to tell here.”
Food contributes to what designers, architects and concessionaires refer to as a “sense of place.” It’s a concept that’s becoming more in demand at airports everywhere.
“There’s definitely a national trend going on in terms of bringing a sense of place, a gateway to the region,” said April Meyer, principal and senior terminal designer for MSP’s latest Terminal 1 projects, with Minneapolis design firm Alliiance. “We really need to stop looking at airports as just moving passengers and baggage, but as an extension of the hospitality industry.”
MSP began its transformation in 1996, when it merged its separate concourses with a contiguous mall. With passengers able to move more freely in the terminal, opportunities to spend money there grew. It was a daring step for its time.
“MSP was at the bleeding edge back in 1996,” said Eric Peterson, who has been involved with design projects at MSP for 30 years, and is head of the National and International Aviation Design Studio at Alliiance.
“There are few other airports taking that next step of having a mix of local and national brands, upping the quality of retail and upping the quality of food and beverage, and at each iteration we’ve managed to stay right at that cusp,” Peterson said.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, travelers suddenly found themselves spending a lot more time in airports. “I remember when going through airport security was a pat on the back and a high five,” Maamoun said. “Increased security means that passengers are having to show up earlier for flights. People are now spending more time browsing, buying and eating.”
For many years, the sole local food representation at MSP was from Ike’s, a Minneapolis restaurant that anchored the north end of the Terminal 1 Mall for about a decade. (It closed early this year.) Surdyk’s Flights came in a few years later; it has since closed in Terminal 1 but remains in Terminal 2. Barrio is also in Terminal 2. (That terminal will be redeveloped, with new concessions, in 2023.)
It wasn’t until about three years ago that MSP’s Terminal 1 began to infuse more local flavor into its halls.
The first phase began in 2016 with the addition of 15 new restaurants and grab-and-go spots, including the Food Truck Alley on Concourse E, which disguised food court counters behind the facades of food trucks, and brought in Holy Land Deli, Red Cow and the now-closed Salty Tart bakery. Smack Shack and Black Sheep were among the local restaurants to land on the mall.
Phase 2 began immediately after the Super Bowl and will culminate in early 2020. It brings another 30 food and drink vendors to the airport, including locals Peoples Organic, Bottle Rocket, Leeann Chin and a cocktail room from Tattersall Distilling.
For local restaurateurs, being invited to set up shop at MSP is a transformative chance to claim their own piece of $235 million in annual concession sales. And it’s a way to give travelers from far and wide a taste of their brand.
“I’m very encouraged and I believe the brand is ready to go bigger,” said John Sugimura, chef and co-owner of PinKU. “I believe that’s why MSP airport is as fancy as it is. ‘How sparkly and pretty and shiny can we make it so we can be super-proud of our local hometown brand?’ ”
But getting in is an arduous undertaking. National concessionaires team up with local partners to pitch packages of restaurants to the airport commission, and hearts are broken as the choices are made. Imagine a Parlour burger, a Murray’s Silver Butter Knife Steak, a Birchwood savory waffle or a Red Stag Supperclub fish fry at MSP. None of those restaurants made the cut.
Even after getting picked, establishing a restaurant within the confines of airport security can be even harder.
“The barriers of entry are really high” when it comes to staffing, said James Brown, co-owner of Hi-Lo Diner. An FBI background check, daily trips past the TSA and expensive parking are some of what keeps employees away from the airport.
Supplying the restaurant can be a headache.
“Streetside, if you run out of buns, you drive to Cub and buy a bag of buns,” Brown said. “At the airport you have to go through all these logistics. You can’t just go get stuff.” When his restaurant opened on Concourse F last spring, Brown needed a microwave oven. So, he purchased one and carried it through the airport, putting it on the scanner through security. He got looks.
“It’s why airport food was bad for so long,” Brown said. “It wasn’t that no one cared. But now that airport customers want really good food, the infrastructure for that is still lacking. It’s like a quantum problem.”
Still, becoming an airport fixture might just be worth it, Brown said. “It’s one of the few opportunities in the restaurant world where you can have a revenue stream that’s guaranteed,” he said.
In addition to the restaurateurs and the travelers who get to benefit from MSP’s food transformation, there are also 20,000 employees with lunch breaks — a built-in daily customer base.
Jennifer Leuma, who works in customer service for Delta, bit into a burger at the Cook & the Ox on a recent afternoon during a break. The sit-down meal isn’t an everyday occurrence for her, but this time, “I just wanted a real burger.”
Still, for all the potential customers hungering for a meal that can also serve as an entrée to the Twin Cities food scene, some travelers just want something familiar. MSP Airport delivers for them, too.
“In Phase 1, I was so excited and so proud and just couldn’t wait for people to see these local brands coming in,” said Grzechowiak. “Nothing got more attention than when Dunkin’ Donuts opened.”