Restaurants Take Risks For Big Rewards At Phoenix Airport

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One of the busiest airports in the country is in the midst of a major upgrade that will bring local restaurants into a space typically reserved for mega-corporate chains. Nearly two dozen Phoenix culinary landmarks have landed space at Sky Harbor. But there is a cost. Rent at the airport is 10 times more expensive in some cases, and some small businesses have gone into a lot of debt to get their foot in the door.

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If you travel a lot, you're probably doing a lot of meals in airports - maybe fast food by Gate C31, or the chain coffee place nearby. Well, one of the busiest airports in the country is now bringing in local restaurants. As Peter O'Dowd reports from member station KJZZ in Phoenix, these small businesses are taking a risk for a shot at a big reward.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAPPUCCINO MACHINE)

PETER O'DOWD, BYLINE: Buying a cappuccino from a hipster is kind of par for the course these days, right? But the last place you'd expect to see a barista - in a scoop-neck shirt and a perfect beard - is on the other side of security.

UNIDENTIFIED BARISTA: Where are you off to today?

UNIDENTIFIED TRAVELER: Minneapolis.

O'DOWD: Even the owner of Cartel Coffee Lab is surprised by his entrance into Sky Harbor. Did Jason Silberschlag ever imagine doing business here?

JASON SILBERSCHLAG: No, not at all - 100 percent, no.

O'DOWD: That's because Cartel Coffee doesn't carry the clout of airport perennials like Starbucks. And renting 740 square feet of space here costs more than 10 times what Silberschlag pays for a much larger cafe in town.

SILBERSCHLAG: What is a harder pill to swallow is the fact that we have quite a bit of debt for this location. And previously, until this, we had been a debt-free company.

O'DOWD: It amounts to half a million dollars for the stainless steel counters, the custom menu boards - everything that makes this cafe look like it belongs in the city, not in the airport. Silberschlag is nervous. But he's also hopeful because after all...

SILBERSCHLAG: This airport's like a little city.

O'DOWD: Forty million people pass through Sky Harbor every year.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Please check in Gate No. C18. Your flight is now boarded and ready for departure.

O'DOWD: Airports across the country are making similar upgrades. A $28 million project at JFK, in New York, is focusing on upscale and local food. Concession workers at Chicago's O'Hare are pushing for fresh and local food. And by the end of the year, the revamp in Phoenix will be complete. You can scarf down gluten-free pizza and carne asada tacos from previously lesser-known vendors. But success isn't guaranteed.

AVERY MCGINN: Your neighborhood can change on you if an airline merges with another airline, or if an airline goes bankrupt.

O'DOWD: Avery McGinn runs Klein's Deli, at San Francisco International Airport.

MCGINN: And that has happened to me, so I know that intimately.

O'DOWD: SFO began its local effort in 2004. Since then, McGinn was forced to close one of her two locations, when American Airlines changed terminals. Then, a few weeks later, passenger traffic shifted again, when Continental and United merged. Sales dropped 65 percent at her remaining location.

MCGINN: And I had a lot of anxious nights, and a lot of second thoughts.

O'DOWD: As a small business, McGinn felt more exposed to the unique risks of operating at an airport. But with a captive audience and the long hours, she says her delis at SFO made more money than her restaurant in the city ever did.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

UNIDENTIFIED WAITER: So we have a tuna tartar here, and a shrimp ceviche.

O'DOWD: Back in Phoenix, there's evidence local food is paying off. The first phase of renovations included Chelsea's Kitchen, a sit-down restaurant with a sleek interior. Derek Boettcher of HMS Host, one of the companies that manages concessions here, says a few months ago, this space belonged to a Chili's.

DEREK BOETTCHER: And Chelsea's is bringing in about 35 percent more revenue, just in this one location.

O'DOWD: Boettcher says travelers are responding to and demanding a few things. First, what you pay for a salad at Chelsea's original Phoenix location is what you'll pay at the airport. Second, many of these new restaurants buy produce from nearby farms. It's important to people who dread eating another greasy, overpriced meal on the road.

AMY RITER: So much better - no comparison.

O'DOWD: Amy Riter just finished a plate of chicken mole tacos before a flight to Denver.

RITER: This is almost nicer than the actual restaurant. So it's just a nice atmosphere. You don't really feel like you're in the airport here.

O'DOWD: And for everyone who's invested money into this project, that's just what they want to hear.

For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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