Au Bon Pain, HMSHost dish out advice for operating in airports

| by Matthew Harper
Au Bon Pain, HMSHost dish out advice for operating in airports

Because airport-based restaurants serve a literal captive audience, they have a unique opportunity to turn a lot of profit in a small area in a short amount of time.

Apart from the growing number of air travelers, increased security delivers a constantly changing captive audience for airside retailers, which claim 83 percent of all spending in airports, Global Data group research director Maureen Hinton said.

"This audience has time to kill and, especially when on holiday, is in the mood to spend," she said. 

There is a formula for airport success, however, and Au Bon and HMSHost have figured it out.

Diego Ortiz, managing partner at Au Bon Pain
Diego Ortiz, managing partner at Au Bon Pain,

"The airport sector gives us an opportunity to bring our fresh, quality offering to a high volume of repeat customers every single day — both regular travelers and airport workers — and new customers," said Diego Ortiz, managing partner at Au Bon Pain, which opened in La Guardia's Terminal B in the 1990s and expanded to four locations within the next several years. "It gives great exposure for our brand to people from all over the country (and the world!) to know us for our signature bakery products, coffee, sandwiches, salads, soups and more."

Steve Johnson, HMSHost CEO
Steve Johnson, CEO HMSHost

Operating inside an airport takes a little creativity and flexibility, especially from restaurants known as lunch spots.

"On the street-side, many restaurants do not open until 11 am, and do not typically have a breakfast menu," HMSHost CEO Steve Johnson said. "To be able to provide service to travelers arriving at airport as early as 5 or 6 a.m. and looking for a dining option, we frequently have to work with our brand partners to create breakfast menus for the airport."  

Breakfast is the majority of Au Bon Pain's business, Ortiz said.

"We are serving breakfast from 4 to 10 a.m. and do extremely well for our travelers and the employees working in the airport," he said. "We're open and ready to serve when the first departure gate is opening around 4 a.m. We're the first food location to be open every morning in the terminal, ready with not only coffee and pastries, but with hot, made-to-order breakfast. Our customers want this and appreciate this in the early morning."

Advantages and principles for restaurants in airports

Airport locations must cater to busy travelers, who need fast food but still expect it to be high quality, Johnson said. Customers also want a lot of choices when it comes to the menu, the option to use technology and a consistent dining experience.

The power of choice

The power of choice is paramount in the airport world, said Johnson, whose goal at HMSHost is to give every guest as many choices as possible.

"And not just choice in general, but a mix of restaurants crafted specifically for each local market and its passenger base... for HMSHost, it is more about determining the right 'mix' of popular national, regional and local restaurant concepts, and then executing each of them flawlessly. This is our core competency and our passion," he said.

Guests should also be free to choose how they want to order and pay.

"At HMSHost, we believe strongly in allowing travelers to make choices on their own terms," Johnson said. "We're providing travelers with the empowerment so they can choose to order from a person, through our Host2Coast mobile app, or one of our many in-restaurant technologies such as ordering kiosks, tabletop tablets, and mobile point-of-sale."

Staying consistent

Successful airport units will provide the same customer experience as their streetside counterparts.

"When bringing an established brand into an airport — whether national, regional or local — we ensure there is no disconnect between their street-side location(s) and the airport location," Johnson said. "We work hand-in-hand with every brand to design and develop the airport location to fully embody the personality and feel of each unique brand, thus creating a truly authentic experience for our guests."

Technology in airports

Technology in airports, in general, is on the rise, which means restaurants must embrace the use of it.

For example, More than 80 percent of airlines were raising "awareness of their mobile services and adding more services to increase the attractiveness of their mobile apps to the passenger," according to the Airline IT Trends Survey, which was co-sponsored by SITA.

"In many cases, this technology is helping the industry improve efficiencies and enhance the customer experience," Johnson said."But it is important to realize that technology is not the only answer and it will not always provide the ideal experience for all of our guests. While some customers are increasingly using technology to make restaurant choices, to place orders, to pay, etc., technology preferences are still as diverse as the travelers we serve."

Regardless of the type of technology a traveler chooses, Johnson said he recognizes that some may still want human interaction.

"So our restaurants always have an adequate number of associates in the front-of-house to ensure all of our guests have a pleasant, efficient and customized experience," Johnson said.

Ortiz is counting on mobile payment and online ordering to help his airport locations run more smoothly and more efficiently.

"We just launched ABP Pickup this July. Customers can order ahead with our Au Bon Pain mobile app or at, pay in advance, and pick up with no wait," he said. "We think many people – especially those working in the terminal – will appreciate the time-saving convenience."

Other key factors, Ortiz said, to ensure a successful airport restaurant include:

  • Great customer service by hiring the right people
  • Great quality products for customers
  • Master the processes necessary to operate a business in a complex environment like an airport
  • Maintaining good relationships with partners.

"We work closely with our landlords and have been fortunate to recently add a relationship with LaGuardia Gateway Partners," he said. "LGP is a strong partner that understands the unique challenges of operating in an airport and has helped us be even better."

Overcoming the disadvantages 

Despite the success Ortiz and Johnson have seen, there are potential pitfalls, including the chaotic nature of traveling, small spaces and transporting food through an airport.

"Because airports are often chaotic, it's a daily challenge to keep up with the volume, flow and demands of the airport, Ortiz said. "You may plan for a certain volume, but things can change suddenly due to flight schedules, weather events."

Restaurants in airports are always smaller than their street counterparts because airport operations always take first priority, Johnson said.

"For example, a sit-down restaurant on the street might be 4,000 -5,000 square feet, but the allocated space in the airport might be only 1,800 – 2,400 square feet.  To ensure there is adequate seating for customers, the footprint of the kitchen must be reduced substantially."

In addition to the small size, terminals are always in flux, Ortiz said.

"[Airport landlords] are working to make sure the terminals are clean, restaurants feel like 5-star experiences, and that everything is running smoothly," he said. Keeping up with your own standards and the expectations of running a business in a terminal is why it's so crucial to have a structure in place that can work efficiently with so many different factors."

Also, most airports handle an extremely high level of passenger traffic, and airport travelers are almost always in a rush.

"It is thus critical for airport restaurants to be built with good speed of service in mind," Johnson said. "We tailor each of our menus to give travelers a choice of high-quality food that is not only fresh, authentic, and delicious, but just as important — fast."

Transporting food through an airport is also challenging, Ortiz said.

"[S]upplies to finished products all have to go through airport scanners, same as travelers and luggage/ Food needs to be brought through various hallways; we deliver for catering; we move product and food between gates," he said. It's important to create a structure and process to maintain quality standards and make sure everyone that works for the operation understands the care that is involved."

"To that point, above all else, people are what make a business thrive," Ortiz said. "Spending time on training, developing, encouraging and motivating them — this leads to respect throughout the team and builds a strong team. Nothing is more important."


Cover photo: Istock

Topics: Franchising & Growth

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