Airport restaurant locations deliver high traffic and a captive audience. No wonder restaurant operators are eager to expand their brands there. But not just any brand will do.
You wouldn’t choose an airport location for your first restaurant, but it makes plenty of sense for subsequent ones. That’s what convinced Iron Chef Michael Symon to put his Bar Symon concept into the Pittsburgh airport and rapper/actor/restaurant owner Ludacris (real name: Chris Bridges) to open the straightforwardly named Chicken N Beer at the Atlanta airport.
These two join a relative handful of independent operators who have learned how to play the airport game. Restaurant opportunities in airports don’t come along very often, so you have to be ready to pounce when they do. That means figuring out beforehand who the concession holders at a particular airport are and what business and political considerations must be addressed before you open up shop.
It’s worth doing. Many strong local and regional operators have found success by opening a version of their existing concept at an airport, as have a handful of celebrity chefs. As more airport authorities show interest in improving their once-stodgy food offerings, more openings are or will be coming up.
Cleveland-based Symon had multiple established concepts to pick from for Pittsburgh. His options were Lola (fine dining), Roast (meat-centric fine dining), Lolita (a hip neighborhood spot) and B-Spot (super-casual specialty burgers, with four locations already). But he didn’t choose any of these. Instead, he’s resurrecting Bar Symon, his only failed concept.
Bar Symon served high-quality comfort food with a twist in a neighborhood tavern, all of it set in a shopping center in Cleveland’s far western suburbs. Of all his operations, he once said, “it’s probably the best reflection of me as a person, the food I like to eat and the kind of place I like to hang out in.”
Bar Symon was a success with critics and was popular with those who were able to figure out how to find it. In the end, location doomed the 9,500 sq. ft. operation, which closed in the fall of 2010 after a two-year run.
But Bar Symon is the type of operation that makes sense for an airport location. Symon’s daily appearances on ABC’s “The Chew” ensure that many of the eight million-plus passengers who come through Pittsburgh International airport each year will give Bar Symon a try.
Ludacris had a four-year run as a partner in the now-shuttered Straits Atlanta in Midtown Atlanta. The restaurant was a celebrity magnet that served Singaporean cuisine. But even though he owns the building that housed Straits, he’s eager to try a new concept—named Chicken N Beer, also the title of his 2003 album—in a new location: Concourse D of the Atlanta airport.
“As I continue to learn and evolve as a businessman, I am extremely excited to put my restaurateur footprint into a new venture inside the busiest international airport in the United States,” the two-time Grammy winner said in a prepared statement. “Straits was a great segue into the industry and with Chicken N Beer I can create my own concept. I look forward to expanding my creativity and driving to a much higher plane.”
Chicken N Beer aims to put a local twist on comfort foods and serve plenty of craft beers. So does Bar Symon. Airport governing bodies seem to be saying they want something other than another fast food place or watered-down casual dining satellite operation to offer the traveling public. If you think your operation would work in an airport location, start making your connections today. Partnering with a celebrity, culinary or otherwise, might be a good place to start.