Get our free newsletter
If you fly out of Reagan National Airport, here are some of your options for a predeparture meal: a) a sandwich with wilted lettuce, wrapped in plastic, b) a slice of pizza that’s been sitting under a heat lamp for an indeterminate amount of time, or c) a pretzel from Auntie Anne’s.
If you’d rather choose d) none of the above, push back that trip, because within a year, you won’t have a reason to pack your own snacks. Terminal A, which is getting a significant renovation in an airport-wide overhaul, will feature restaurants from the likes of Brasserie Beck and Marcel’s owner Robert Wiedmaier and ABC’s The Chew co-host Carla Hall. Tables will be outfitted with iPads that travelers can use not only to check their email or flight status but also order and pay for their food. Elsewhere in the airport and at Dulles International Airport, national chains are being replaced by local eateries like Ben’s Chili Bowl, Cava Mezze Grill, &pizza, Taylor Gourmet, Chef Geoff’s, Bracket Room, Lebanese Taverna, Kapnos Taverna, and El Centro D.F.
D.C.’s airports seem to be the last place to catch on to the city’s food renaissance. (Even stadiums have upgraded from hot dogs to roasted cauliflower sandwiches.) But the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has been working to finally get with the craze around all things local. In 2013, the organization contracted a company called MarketPlace Development to manage and market the retail and restaurant offerings at both National and Dulles. (Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport is owned by the Maryland Aviation Administration, so don’t take up your gripes about the food there with MWAA.) “About 85 percent of [leases] had expired or would be expiring in the next couple of years,” says Steve Baker, the authority’s vice president of business administration. “It gave us the chance to really update our program probably for the first time since the airports authority was created.” In the coming years, Dulles and National will revamp 150 shops and restaurants in total. The latest wave of new eating options was announced just last week.
Lebanese Taverna co-owner Grace Abi-Najm Shea says the restaurant has been approached about an airport location three times over the past 10 years. “We always were like, ‘No, no, it’s not our thing,’” she says. “It was all Cinnabons.” But when her family started to see the type of local restaurants that were going in, they started to reconsider. “I was like, ‘Hey, if that caliber restaurant’s going in, maybe we should take a look at it.’” Their location, replacing Potbelly in Terminal C, will be called Lebanese Taverna Express, a hybrid of the restaurant’s casual cafe and Lebanese market, serving sandwiches, mezze, fresh bread, and dips.
Airport leases also tend to be shorter than you’d find elsewhere. “Airports are such high-usage locations. You’re serving three meals a day, a lot of volume, they get run down quickly. So the airport has a pretty hard and fast rule of seven years,” says Abi-Najm Shea. Lebanese Taverna’s other locations tend to have leases that are twice as long.
Most airport restaurants partner with companies specializing in airport concessions to manage their outposts day-to-day. For some D.C. restaurants new to the airport, this means relinquishing at least partial control of their brands for the first time. “Our biggest concern always is our name and losing part of that,” Abi-Najm Shea says. “What if it’s not up to snuff? What if it’s not up to our standards?…We value our reputation very much, so that’s probably the scariest part.” (Some owners do operate the restaurants themselves, while others franchise or license out their businesses.)
Those partners help navigate the airport’s specific peculiarities with regard to hiring and the supply chain. For example, all airport employees—regardless of their roles—must pass a 10-year FBI background check. “That begins to affect your labor pool from the very beginning,” Baker says. “You’re dealing with a labor pool that has to be screened and approved by the federal government.”
Storage, obviously, is also a challenge at an airport. Some restaurants have commissaries in or near the airport where they can store ingredients and supplies, and deliveries need to be far more frequent. El Centro plans to have a sit-down restaurant as well as El Centro Express for takeout—all in a 1,500-square-foot space. “Our whole kitchen is like that space,” says co-owner Ivan Iricanin of the restaurant’s Georgetown and 14th Street NW locations, which are at least four times that size. Limited space forces the restaurants to pare down their menus to the dishes that are the easiest to make on-site. At the airport, El Centro D.F. will likely have only 60 percent of its regular menu. The good news is the restaurants are able to keep all the same vendors and ingredients they use elsewhere.
Being in an airport comes with some stipulations that operators aren’t subject to elsewhere: Restaurants must be open for a minimum of 12 hours a day (and often more). For Cava and others, that means introducing breakfast for the first time. Co-owner Brett Schulman isn’t disclosing exactly what will be on Cava’s a.m. menu just yet, but it will include Greek yogurt.
Meanwhile, the lease at the airport required that Ben’s Chili Bowl, which opened in July outside the B and C terminals, to serve at least two beers—something it doesn’t offer at its U Street NW or Rosslyn locations. (The half-smoke spot also is required to sell beer at its Nationals Park stands.)
Other necessary changes might not be explicit in the contract: Bracket Room, for example, is aiming to make itself more family-friendly for its forthcoming Dulles and National locations, rather than gearing itself toward the bar crowd that dominates its Clarendon location. While co-owner Chris Bukowski and his partners have yet to decide if there will be an actual kids’ menu, you’re more likely to find a grilled cheese and other finger foods than a tuna tartare. (There will, however, still be alcoholic shooters.)
While prices tend to be higher, they can’t go too high. In the past, the airport authority had a policy that businesses had to offer “street pricing.” That meant, for example, a Starbucks in the airport had to have the same price as a Starbucks outside the airport. About two years ago, acknowledging that it does in fact cost more to operate an airport location, the authority adopted a “street plus 10” rule, meaning no vendor can charge more than 10 percent more than what they charge elsewhere. But Baker says very few operators raised their prices anyway. “A lot of it has to do with competition. A lot of it has to do with passenger response,” he says. People tend to think airport prices are higher, even when they’re not.
Operators are split on whether it’s ultimately more lucrative to be in an airport than anywhere else. Yes, they have a built-in customer base. But operational costs and rents tend to be higher, too. “Where there’s more people, there’s increased rent,” says Ben’s Chili Bowl co-owner Nizam Ali. Ben’s pays more for real estate in the airport than at its two other locations, he says.
Perhaps not surprisingly, restaurant owners say locations after the security screenings tend to have higher sales, thanks to captive audiences. But there are trade-offs. Ali says it was very difficult to find real estate after the TSA checkpoint that has seating, not just a counter, so it “feels like a Ben’s.” So the restaurant is located before metal detectors instead.
Aside from potential profits, one of the main appeals of a gate-side locale is the brand exposure. And if a business has an eye on national expansion, the airport can be a layover to future shops elsewhere. “There’s millions of people passing by,” El Centro’s Iricanin says. “It’s a good PR machine.”
And that goes not just for individual restaurants, but for the city itself.
“What makes D.C.’s airport different from Chicago’s, different from Boston’s if they all have the same chain restaurants?” Ali says. “Tourism starts when you enter the airport…That’s the first impression they get of your city. Some people’s first view of America is from the airport.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery