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Brand-Name Food Courts Soon to Be in Session at LAX : Airport: Whoppers, Big Macs, Pizza-Pizza are among the candidates to feed hungry fliers. High food prices are a concern.

October 23, 1994|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Hungry fliers have for years been dismayed and restless over the price and quality of airport food in this country, and Los Angeles International Airport is no exception. So many of us were first encouraged and then made restless earlier this year, when LAX officials announced plans to bring in a new era of concessionaires and food, then delayed it.

Now the paperwork is flying, familiar brand names are in the air and the process is in motion at last. But prices are still a question.

More than 30 companies have submitted bids to the city Airport Commission, proposing new operations for 21 airport sites--more will follow--from modest snack stands to the elevated Theme Restaurant, the most recognizable structure at LAX.

LAX officials say some of these new food and beverage operations could be doing business by spring, 1995, and they could all be open by fall. They represent a prime business opportunity: LAX officials report that food and liquor sales at the airport grossed $51.9 million in 1993.

Here are some clues to what travelers can expect in the new era:

* Familiar names in the proposals include The Coffee Beanery, Arby's, Wok & Roll, Fisherman's Grotto/China City, Dreyer's Ice Cream, Sushi Boy, Ben & Jerry's (ice cream), Haagen-Dazs (ice cream), Creative Croissants, Burger King, McDonald's, Baskin-Robbins, Panda Express, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wolfgang Puck's (specialty pizzas), Little Caesar's (pizza) and California Pizza Kitchen.

* Of three bidders vying to take over the cryptically named Theme Restaurant (which currently offers California cuisine at dinner entree prices from $10.25 to $18.95), two are proposing new outer space themes and new names (still secret, for now). One of the space-theme bidders (proposing "chicken, fish, chili, lasagna . . . menu will be updated to showcase emerging talent and trends") is CA One Services, Inc., a subsidiary of Delaware North of Buffalo, N.Y., the nationwide concession company that holds the contract for Yosemite National Park. The other bidders are Host International (essentially another name for current operators Host Marriott, who propose American cuisine and pizza) and Concessions International, an Atlanta-based national concession firm, in a joint venture with the owners of Dulan's Restaurant on Crenshaw Boulevard and Aunt Kizzy's Back Porch in Marina del Rey.

* On the Tom Bradley International Terminal mezzanine, which currently offers only a cafeteria and bar, planners envision a restaurant/bar opposite a food court including several different burger and fast-food operators. Because so many additions are being made in the Bradley terminal, officials don't expect those operations to open before next fall.

Nationwide, the trend of upgrading airport concessions with name brands goes back several years. It reached Los Angeles in March, when LAX officials announced plans to end their 34-year-old exclusive agreement with Host Marriott and seek out bids from dozens of would-be concessionaires. Many travelers don't realize that Host Marriott, joined by a pair of partners, currently controls all the airport food and beverage concessions because the company has "branded concept agreements" to use the names of Dunkin Donuts, Burger King, Manchu Wok, Pizza Hut, TCBY (yogurt) and Starbuck's Coffee. All the hiring and firing, however, is done by Host Marriott, and all the operations report to one general manager.

The original LAX plan to open up concessions called for a June 24 bid deadline, but sparse interest in the paperwork-intensive project led to a three-month delay. About a month ago, airport officials began interviewing and evaluating would-be concessionaires. (Airport officials have structured the offerings so that most concessionaires are bidding to operate more than one site within the airport; thus, the initial eight concessionaires will operate restaurant or snack operations at 21 sites.)

If all goes as planned, said Judy Solchak, the airport chief of contract services, the airport commissioners will forward their recommendations to the City Council for final approval by December.

Cost-conscious travelers, however, may be more interested in what airport commissioners chose not to do in the course of signing these new contracts.

The Consumer Reports Travel Letter noted in June that airports in Boston and San Francisco now require concessionaires to charge no more than "street prices" for convenience items. Airports in Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth are adding such requirements as contracts are renewed, the Consumer Reports editors found, and Denver, Detroit, Las Vegas and Seattle airports limit concessionaires to a markup of 15% above street prices. John Wayne Airport in Orange County and Pittsburgh's airport, the editors found, have similar caps.

LAX had a chance to move in that direction. In an airport survey last year, local travelers named high airport prices as their top concern, and early this year, LAX staffers investigated the idea of capping food prices at 10% above going rates outside the airport. Instead, the idea died. The Airport Commissioners dropped it in March, saying that despite the limited nature of the airport market, they'd rather rely on open competition to set prices.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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