In the past, travelers at American airports were lucky if they had access to fast-food outlets, generic sit-down restaurants, and snack bars selling pre-packaged items. But the United Airlines hub at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport is in the middle of a $120 million transformation its organizers hope will change how travelers see airport food. The airline is working with New York-based OTG Management, a hospitality group that operates more than 200 restaurants and retail concepts in 10 airports across North America. OTG is also, according to its promotional materials, known as the "company that put iPads in airports" — a now-widespread innovation that allows a diner to sit down and order via iPad, all with little human interaction (and maximum operating efficiency).
Unlike its larger competitors, including national park- and stadium-outfitting HMSHost and Delaware North, OTG operates only in the airport space. And while its competitors often focus on attracting licensed and franchised restaurant brands, OTG maintains full control over almost all of its restaurant concepts, which allows its menus to quickly react to changes in consumer needs.
"By looking at these terminals as a blank canvas, we’ve been able to really reimagine the space."
While OTG currently operates in six of the top 30 North American airports, the company is well positioned to win new business because of its "highly differentiated product offering and the strength of its relationships with our airline partners," according to its IPO, filed on January 28, 2016. (It delayed the IPO one month later, citing "unfavorable market conditions.") OTG has doubled its food and beverage market in the top 50 North American airports from approximately three percent in 2008 to approximately six percent of sales in 2014, and the company recently signed major deals for food and beverage programs with United at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and with American Airlines at Philadelphia International Airport. The IPO further noted that OTG plans "up to seven" new terminals in 2017.
"The airport space has long been overlooked, and both guests and business partners are looking for a refresh of the terminal," said OTG CEO Rick Blatstein. According to a 2015 survey by Airports Council International-North America, passengers spent, on average, 75 minutes inside larger airports like Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson and 45 minutes in medium-sized ones like Mineta San Jose International. Travelers are no longer satisfied with just eating a burger or a processed sandwich during those wait times. Instead, they are looking for more sophisticated fare, along with vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and healthy options. "There is tremendous opportunity in not just creating new food and beverage concessions, but a fully connected terminal," Blatstein said. "By looking at these terminals as a blank canvas, we’ve been able to really reimagine the space."
When OTG goes into a new airport market, it works to put together a group of chefs that best represents that city’s culinary scene, Blatstein said. From rookies new to the restaurant business to chefs with Michelin stars, OTG tries to bring a cast of culinary characters that will give travelers coming into these airport terminals a true sense of place, he said. OTG has worked with chefs including three Michelin star-holder Alain Ducasse, who operates Benoit in New York City, on French bistro Saison in Newark Liberty International Airport and Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern on MiniBar at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
At Newark’s new United terminal (where chefs like Alex Stupak, Mario Carbone, and Alex Guarnaschelli boast OTG concepts), this approach translates into two more restaurants currently under development: Little Purse, a dumpling and noodle restaurant being developed by two-time Top Chef contestant Dale Talde, and Daily, a restaurant that will have a different menu every day.
Michael Coury is OTG’s executive chef and the man who entices chefs like Talde to bring their concepts to airports around the country. "I’ve known Dale since he started his empire," Coury said. "I knew we wanted to do something similar in Newark. As a traveler, how many times have you been to a generic Chinese restaurant? What Dale was doing was so unique and we wanted to put it in the airport."
When Coury reached out to Talde and asked him to do an Asian dim sum-style restaurant at Newark, Talde — whose restaurant group includes restaurants in Brooklyn and Jersey City — jumped at the chance. "I wanted to do a fun twist on dim sum, and we’ve been collaborating on the menu and the restaurant’s design," Talde said. "When someone like Michael comes to you with an idea, you trust that person and say, ‘Okay, yeah. Let’s go with it.’"
But even for an experienced restaurant operator like Talde, running a restaurant in an airport brings several unique challenges. There’s a higher volume of patrons, and workers must be verified by the Transportation Security Administration because they’re working in an enhanced security environment. According to independent restaurateur Adam Sappington, who operates one location of the Country Cat in Portland, OR and another location in that city's airport, that labor hurdle is often a tough one for airport restaurants. "You walk through TSA every time you come to work. That alone is kind of a mental space for people to get past," Sappington told Eater in 2015. "People don’t say, ‘I want to be a chef so I’m going to go to an airport and cook.’"
There are also big adjustments that have to be made from a culinary perspective. For example: the 250,000 BTU grill a chef like Talde would normally use? That’s a no-go because the restaurant doesn’t have the space to install a proper ventilation system. Room for Talde’s sous chef to spend the three days required to making his Peking duck? No on that, too. "But we can do a barbecue duck that is a fantastic product," Talde said, talking about his willingness to adjust to airport conditions.
During a recent afternoon in the Saison kitchen, Talde was tasting three of the items that will be served at Little Purse in Terminal C: a vegetarian platter of edamame hummus, pickled eggplant, and kimchi served with a scallion pancake; the restaurant’s take on a chicken lettuce wrap; and a vinaigrette-dressed heirloom tomato salad on a bed of kaffir lime yogurt.
Airport chefs have to appeal to a wide variety of traveler tastes, which means sometimes spices in foods have to be adjusted accordingly. The edamame hummus met Talde’s standards for richness and creaminess, but the chef thought it needed a bit more salt — and the accompanying spicy element was toned down. "The kimchi wasn’t as spicy as what you’d find in your average Korean restaurant," Talde said. The salad tasted fresh and contrasted well with the kaffir lime yogurt, although Talde thought that the vinaigrette was a tad too sweet.
Other items on the menu will include Talde’s signature dumplings, along with hand-pulled noodle bowls and steamed buns. "The airport space presents a unique opportunity to appeal to an incredibly diverse customer base," Talde said. "It’s certainly important to create dishes and flavors with wide appeal."
Airport chefs have to appeal to a wide variety of traveler tastes, which means sometimes spices have to be adjusted accordingly.
Another concept restaurant that Coury plans to bring to EWR is Daily, a restaurant whose menu will be decidedly local. "This restaurant will not defined by cooking style or region," Coury said. "It will be defined by what’s fresh in the market that day and what’s accessible. Maybe the sepia is great that day. Maybe we’ll see a pork bun with a crumble on top. It’s really defined by creativity."
So how does a chef do "market fresh" without being able to stroll the green market in chef whites? OTG's answer: Bring the market to the airport. OTG has access to a large range of fresh foods and produce that is delivered to a central loading dock at Terminal C every day, said Eric Brinker, the company’s vice president of experience. "It’s all brought in through the airport’s secure area, but all of our crew members have [special] badges that allow them to deliver the food directly to the terminal," he said. "We have the smallest refrigerators in the industry because we bring in fresh food every day."
Coury is currently looking to hire a chef that can handle this challenge. "There will be a group of us [from OTG] at the restaurant on a daily basis to really support that chef, because it's definitely an aggressive concept," he said. Coury's goal is for the chef to be able to flex his or her creative muscles with ingredients like venison, fresh sea scallops, or even pork belly.
Both concepts are currently under construction and are expected to open by the end of summer. Average times to develop airport food concepts differ for each one. "It took us 18 months to develop Little Purse from concept to its opening later this summer," Coury said. And Little Purse isn't the only Talde concept in Newark International: His spot Caps Beer Garden, which is already open, is located in a Terminal C space that used to be a moving walkway. It serves Asian-American bar bites and entrees, including buffalo chicken bao buns, crispy duck salad, and handmade sushi platters and rolls.
Talde trusts that his partnership with OTG results in quality dining options. "I want people to say, ‘this is delicious. The service is great and the drinks are fantastic,'" Talde said of his airport concepts. "That’s what all travelers want."
And as someone who travels regularly, Talde’s become an expert in what he doesn't want to eat at airports. "Doesn’t it brighten your day when you can get something good to eat and not have to suffer through a bad meal then jump on a plane?" he asked. "When you can get to the airport, get something good to eat with good service, that just helps make a better travel experience. The airport is the first and last impression of your trip, so why not make it a good one?"