Good food in airports? Not bloody likely, you say. But High Flying Foods aims to change that. Brothers Glenn and Garret Meyers, San Francisco-area restaurant operators, hatched the idea in 2000 after one especially abysmal airport meal. They envisioned airport eateries that sold fresh, high-quality, locally made food with refinements no one would expect, like fresh-ground coffee, on-premises baking and biodegradable packaging.
The Meyers brothers managed to land a spot at the San Francisco International and Oakland International airports with Firewood Café and Grill, a farm-to-table concept based on their San Francisco restaurant. More recently they have opened licensed units of the Bay Area’s Peet’s Coffee & Tea in both locations. Now High Flying Foods is bidding on restaurant slots in Southern California airports and beyond, where it will partner with local operators and hopes to open more Peet’s locations. The brothers recently hired Kevin Westlye, a veteran operations expert and former director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, to execute strategic growth, oversee staff and operations and direct development. Westlye explained the nuances of developing an airport-based portfolio.
RH: We tend to think of airport restaurants as the playground for large, nameless management companies. How can a small operator crack the code?
Westlye: Most airports go through a competitive bidding process by issuing a request for proposal, or RFP. You need the ability to understand that and answer it completely with the best proposal for the particular lease package. If you’re bidding on a package, you need to design the space and provide renderings of it; present menu, service and maintenance plans; and provide capital investment and business projections. When you submit a proposal, it’s kind of all or nothing: You could spend $10,000-$50,000 development and there is no guarantee that you will be selected.
RH: Let’s say you submit the winning proposal. What are some of the logistical issues you need to address?
Westlye: There’s a substantial security process that is very learnable. All of the managers and the employees need to be badged, and they can’t start work before than. That requires an FBI background check.
All the vendors or purveyors have to bring product through the same screening process, so you also need to have the drivers badged. You can’t just call and say “can you deliver more basil?” It’s a trip from the parking lot through security, and a supplier can’t just roll up to the front door and drop something. So we have to be highly organized and make sure we place orders on time for every purveyor.
Airports also limit the number of knives available in each restaurant, and they have to be secured. We have a hole drilled in the handle and tether each nice with a thick wire. This is all good for the airport world, but you have to get over the mental hurdle that it’s a different environment.
RH: So you have less control over the space and how you run it.
Westlye: Right. For instance, when you bid on a leased space in an airport, the airport has already set the hours for the space. If it’s designated for coffee, you know you have to be open from 4 in morning to 10 at night. If it’s Italian food, you most likely would not serve breakfast, but you would need to open at 10 or 11 a.m. and stay open until 10 p.m. The hours may sometimes be extended, but one of the great things is you know exactly what they are going in.
The airport controls the airport; if we leased in an urban or suburban environment, we would control the space. The airport has security rules that they won’t bend. Have to work around their structure. Leases may be just a little bit shorter—the average lease is probably 10 years—but the utilities are already in the space, versus if we were to take over a space that we had to build out. The construction might require a longer lease period.
RH: Speaking of food, what works well in an airport setting?
Westlye: Especially after 9/11, many passengers coming into the airport leave themselves a good hour because of the security lines. So there is more time spent walking to the gate and at the gate than when security was less strict. At the same time, the passenger is still interested in having things done at a fairly quick pace. So people want to order and receive their food in 6-10 minutes—they’re not willing to wait any longer than that. So we do brick oven pizza at a very high temperature, and the dough is flatbread style. We can bake it at 850 degrees in three minutes and have it be a great pizza. Our success is based on engineering the production of good food that exceeds expectations from flavor and quality standpoint. We want to do individually cooked items but prepare them relatively quickly.
The other challenge is that the spaces tend to be small. So we try to specialize in 8-12 menu items. We couldn’t manage 40 items in a small kitchen. You really have to be careful in balancing the food you wish to serve with the ability to execute the menu.
RH: As you expand, you plan to work with other local restaurant operators. How will you identify partners?
Westlye: We recently submitted RFPs to the San Diego airport. One of the packages we bid on included a Thai restaurant. We want to have the best Thai food in the airport, we want a locally known chef and their brand, so we tried to partner with restaurateurs and chefs of that caliber. We would take a team, go to the restaurant and learn the concept from the owner. That owner would work with us to design the space and train staff on their recipes, culture and procedures, and we would try to honor those 100 percent of the time as best we could. We would want to use the same utensils, pots, pans and recipes. If they’re buying products from a local small farm, we would want to buy from them too.
RH: Is it hard to make money?
Westlye: I think it can be a lucrative market if you do it well. If you have a good location, a good concept and run it professionally, you can definitely make money. You need to execute on all cylinders.
There is a high cost to get in and frankly a high cost to operate—airport rents are fairly expensive. At the same time there is a large audience that does fly. So if you present the product well and it is good, it can be a great market.
Until 2000, HMSHost virtually owned the airport food market. Now many airports have decided to bring local restaurants in. And their food and beverage sales have jump because people like the food. We believe that we’re the right company in the right place at the right moment in history.