Airline travel is booming. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2022, 853 million passengers flew on U.S. airlines, which means a lot of eyeballs on brands within airports and lots of hungry passengers to tempt.

Grove Bay Concessions runs national franchises and licensed concepts at airports. Grove says its sales per square foot is three to four times higher at airport locations than traditional counterparts. Image courtesy of GroveGrove Bay Concessions runs national franchises and licensed concepts at airports. Grove says its sales per square foot is three to four times higher at airport locations than traditional counterparts. Image courtesy of GroveFAT Brands, based in Los Angeles, works with national and local brands in airports. The company finds that often the best choice is to offer brands local to that airport’s market because there’s already brand presence established, according to Mason Wiederhorn, chief brand officer, FAT Brands.

Conversely, airports are also a great opportunity to establish a brand, to trial it with guests it might not otherwise have access to, or to test out a market before opening a streetside location, says Wiederhorn. “They’re a great place to figure out if you want to go into a certain market,” he points out. “It is a little more controlled because we know there are going to be certain traffic levels so we can get feedback from the local market but also reach travelers.”

Villa Restaurant Group, Morristown, N.J., operates 32 airport locations under different brands, some of them proprietary, some franchised.

Villa’s New York City airports see revenue of $3,000 to $6,000 per square foot, which compares very favorably with streetside locations where sales are closer to $1,000 to $1,500 per square foot. “If you hit a home run in the airport, it’s a grand slam,” says Christopher McNamee, director of business development for Villa.

Grove Bay Hospitality Group of Miami has an airport division, Grove Bay Concessions, through which it runs national franchises such as Burger King and Dunkin’ as well as some licensed concepts like Wolfgang Puck. Grove says its sales per square foot are three to four times higher at airport locations than at its streetside counterparts.

Village Restaurant Group of Morristown, N.J., operates 32 airport locations, some proprietary, some brand names. Image courtesy of Villa Restaurant GroupVillage Restaurant Group of Morristown, N.J., operates 32 airport locations, some proprietary, some brand names. Image courtesy of Villa Restaurant Group

Navigating Hurdles

Traveling to an airport terminal, getting through security, passing background checks, and working long (sometimes strange) hours, are all detractors to running an airport restaurant. These obstacles can make it hard to hire, can protract the building process, and can make day-to-day business difficult.

It can take two months or more to complete the paperwork for a new employee to begin work — and sometimes they don’t even make it through the background check. “We have to reject some people because of the smallest of [criminal] charges,” McNamee says.

Once employees are hired, they need to arrive at an airport around 40 minutes early, park at a remote spot, take a bus to the terminal and then negotiate security, says McNamee. “For every three people you interview you’ll get one because of that hassle.”

Per the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), restaurants need to open 90 minutes before the first flight of the day and have to stay open until 30 minutes before the last flight. Add to that, flights can move terminals at any moment, which can impact sales substantially.

Despite all that, once candidates are hired, they tend to stick with airport work. “We’ve had the lowest turnover in our airport locations because they pay well, the volume of sales is high and it’s good tips, so it is a pretty consistent job,” says Franceso Balli, CEO, Grove Hospitality.

Villa’s most recent openings happened 45 days later than anticipated, which meant paying employee wages for time the restaurants weren’t even open, says McNamee.

Seven of Potbelly Sandwich Works’ 430 locations are in airports. “We like having airports because lots of people get to see it and experience the restaurant,” says Adam Noyes, senior vice president and chief operations officer for the Chicago-based brand.

Villa Restaurant Group prefers airport locations that offer a lot of foot traffic but are not too far from departure gates. Image courtesy of VillaVilla Restaurant Group prefers airport locations that offer a lot of foot traffic but are not too far from departure gates. Image courtesy of Villa

Deliveries and Storage

Delivering food and supplies to an airport restaurant is complicated.

Typically, deliveries arrive at a consolidated receiving and distribution center, which is run by a third party, and goods are delivered to the restaurants later in the day. “Sometimes this is a blessing since they are delivered directly to our storage areas, but sometimes the deliveries are late, thawed, or no longer fresh,” says McNamee. It’s also “a huge extra cost,” he adds — up to 3% of sales.

However, it also depends on location. At Miami International Airport, product is delivered directly to a dock at the terminal, says Balli, but in Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina everything is delivered to a central commissary.

Storage is often within the airport but away from the terminal. At Miami airport, Grove has 680 square feet of storage half a mile away. “Storage is generally tight,” says Wiederhorn. “Some airports have off-site storage for dry goods and that’s really helpful, but if we have fewer storage spaces we tend to have more deliveries.” Usually, he points out, off-site storage spaces are included in lease discussions upfront.

Longer Build Outs

Airport restaurants tend to be significantly smaller than streetside locations but can take much longer to build. Many contractors don’t want to deal with the hassles of working in an airport and only some companies are approved to work in them since they’re on government land. This leaves a limited pool of companies to choose from, “and you have to to lock them in and be willing to pay their price,” says McNamee.

McNamee points out that a streetside location might cost $500 a square foot to build but those costs are typically closer to $2,000 per square foot for an airport location. “We lock the contractors in but might have to pay them in advance because the airport’s not ready for them to start building,” says McNamee, “which means a contract length might double.”

Because airports are busy, usually new restaurants can only be built after hours — a very small window — says Balli, and it also ramps up the cost since contractors are working off-hours at a premium.

It can also be trickier to bring in equipment and construction materials. All this means an airport location can cost two to three times as much as a streetside store, Balli points out.

Another challenge that can arise in an airport is that there are infrastructure points you must use, and you must be sure to not create problems for other tenants.

The building process for airport locations can also be much slower due to longer review periods and multiple rounds of approval, says Wiederhorn.

Location Preferences

While airport locations tend to see a steady throughput of customers, the right location can make a huge difference to sales.

Villa operates a seven-unit locally inspired food hall at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. “It’s right inside security and you get visibility from everyone coming through,” McNamee says. This location was a bit of a risk, he says, because travelers tend to be “gate huggers.” However, McNamee notes that this location is on track to make around $6,000 per square foot. Another great location is near a cluster of gates, McNamee notes.

For Potbelly, ideally the stores aren’t at the end of a terminal “because you’ve got limited visibility,” Noyes points out.

To understand if an airport will be a good location, Villa likes to know how many “enplanements” there are daily — that is, the number of people getting onto planes. For Villa that number is ideally five million per year.

Seven of Potbelly Sandwich Works' 430 locations are in airports.  Image courtesy of PotbellySeven of Potbelly Sandwich Works' 430 locations are in airports. Image courtesy of Potbelly

Airport Design

While restaurant operators like airport locations to look the same as their streetside counterparts, that’s not always feasible.

There has to be plenty of space for queuing, says McNamee. “A long line often tells people don’t come here to get your food. People are there to fly, not to eat.”

Guests want to feel they’re in a streetside location, so the design and branding should be kept as close as possible, Balli says.

Every airport has its own rules for design, and some are stricter than others. One airport in Rhode Island approaches its design like a mall and wants all storefronts to look the same; whereas Raleigh-Durham “allows you to have your design spill out so storefronts can look different so that gives you more creative freedom to draw people in,” McNamee points out.

The ability to make the storefront branded, says Noyes, can be an opportunity “to adapt our brand to the space and make it feel part of the airport and not stick out in a negative way. At the end of the day, he points out, you’re creating your own brand but also fitting into the airport brand.

As for furniture, it’s best to use the strongest, most durable materials you can because your store will be beaten up by roller bags, feet and strollers. Balli likes to think about how people will use his restaurants when considering the furniture. He opts for chairs with open backs so travelers can squeeze their luggage behind them, or with legs wide enough to slide luggage below the seat. “Those are little details that make all the difference.”

For the seating, Balli likes to cater more to single diners and less to groups, which means more bar seating, more two-tops and more communal seats. And he adds charging stations wherever he can.

It’s important to be as visible as you can be in an airport, Wiederhorn points out, and that includes placing your front counter or open kitchen against the strongest flow of traffic. “You need to capture a guest from far away,” he explains.

Potbelly’s queuing areas are a little larger and at many airport locations the stores have an inline order-taker to speed throughput.

Grove is introducing kiosks to airports so guests can order, then grab and go. At one location, 75% of orders come through the kiosk, Balli points out. What’s important with a kiosk is to let customers know it’s there. “Without the proper signage the kiosk is pointless,” he says.

The back of house also needs to be considered in airport locations.

Potbelly’s airport restaurants are around 800 square feet, which allows them to have a similar front-of-house kitchen plus a limited back room of a sink, some storage and reach-in refrigerators and freezers.

The most impacted design element in airport locations is the back-of-house layout, says Balli, and this has to be very efficient. “Sometimes you have kitchens that are 700 square feet and we’re serving thousands of people a day.”

Despite the challenges, there are a lot of benefits to opening in an airport — visibility, running test markets, and not least of all, sky-high sales volumes. 

Menu Matters

Airport menus tend to be more streamlined than traditional locations for two reasons: storage and throughput. With storage often off-site or on another floor of the airport, restaurants want to store as few goods as possible.

Also, ideally, employees take as few steps as possible, to increase speed, says McNamee. Villa recommends to the brands it works with to pick their best-selling items, which is often around a third of the menu. And for full-service restaurants, the menu should be no longer than a page, for speed of ordering, he adds. For example, Villa operates a Jersey Mike’s location at the Orlando airport. Instead of having the most difficult sandwiches on the menu, it has the best-selling and the fastest to make.

“Ordering habits are completely different in an airport, says Balli. “People aren’t having an appetizer, entree, dessert, it’s more of a one-meal wonder. And all meal periods apply at all times. You have to have breakfast, you have to have grab-and-go. Generally, says Balli, airport restaurants see lower check averages but higher volume.

FAT Brands has reduced its number of menu items, and opts for those optimized for throughput. “Every single item is based on the throughput time,” says Wiederhorn, “and that’s one of the first things we do because that informs the kitchen and the design.

Potbelly keeps its menu as similar to streetside locations as possible, however. “Having those same elements is important for the nostalgia.” And in some ways it has more products because airport locations have to offer breakfast. What it has cut is the number of sandwich sizes — from three to two.