Airport food courts aren’t exactly culinary destinations. A soggy Stromboli, an overly sweet tea, maybe a ripe banana if you’re lucky — these are the things travelers have to look forward to once they get past security. But as American palates are expanding and convenience foods wane in popularity, airport restaurants — and their bars — are changing with the times, bringing more sophisticated beverage programs to terminals everywhere.
“It’s really different. It’s like opening a restaurant in a mall. Your demographic is not treating your establishment like a destination” says Mike Henderson of Edible Beats restaurant group. Their popular downtown Denver eatery, Root Down, has a sister location in the Denver International Airport.
Root Down’s downtown location stays packed with customers who come for the local, sustainable ethos and emphasis on culinary craft and service. But with a spot in DIA, where few travelers who pass through are familiar with the original’s reputation or mission, Henderson says, there’s lots of room to surprise and delight.
“They come in in their own world, hurrying, checking their flight status. Their needs are basic, and they’re not expecting any sort of culinary or drinking or service experience. We come in, and we overachieve and blow their expectations out of the water. Oh, a cocktail list and craft beer! They’re just floored.”
Henderson’s staff enjoys the opportunity to offer travelers something unexpected, but many other airport watering holes serve the opposite function.
“We have regular guests that come in every week,” says Jason Jimenez, a bartender at a wine bar in the Cleveland airport. “We see the same people. 90% is regular guests, mostly business travelers.”
It turns out those kinds of travelers are filling the seats at airport bars all over the country. Tiffanie Barriere, a bartender at One Flew South in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport says, “[Our regulars] have some very unique jobs, jobs that require them to not just take a subway, Uber or drive. These guys fly to work weekly. They are troopers! The attire, the mentalities, the lack of sleep, the schedules; our guests are champions of their jobs.”
The staff at these spots have to be champions themselves, putting up with long commutes, security checks and far-away store rooms.
“You get used to security. We don’t go through the same constraints that flyers do. We have our own separate line so we can go through faster,” says Jimenez.
Barriere agrees. “If you follow the rules, TSA allows smooth, easy entrance.”
Less smooth is what happens if you run out of something during service. At Root Down, “the biggest challenge is that our coolers are a floor down, accessed by an elevator, past a security guard, so you’ve got badges,” Henderson says. “It’s 300-400 yards down the concourse, and it’s a 15 minute round trip to go get it and come back.”
Henderson’s staff deals with the space constraints by keeping a self-contained bar program — favoring draft beer over bottles, batching bases for cocktails and keeping ice in an insulated cart for back-up.
Root Down has enjoyed using their airport location as a platform to introduce new folks to their local- and craft-driven ethos, but not everyone is looking for a novel drinking experience just because they’re off on a traveling adventure.
At Jimenez’s Cleveland wine bar, “people are used to the noble grapes — Cabernet, Chardonnay and so forth.” Some folks just need time to warm up to something unfamiliar. “Their first glass may be a Pinot Grigio, but the next glass might be something different like Vigionier,” Jimenez says.
At Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport, Barriere sees a little more room for variety. “In an airport bar, the fun and challenges are the demographics. The palate to please just isn’t a neighborhood spot; it’s a worldwide approach. You have to expand way out of the box and also execute it,” she says.
Regardless of what they’re serving, bartenders in airports share one experience that those pouring in freestanding locations don’t: their customers talk to each other. With each new turn, a little community arises among the folks passing the hours together until their flights.
“It’s not like other bars,” Henderson says. “No one is there with friends or meeting their in-laws. They’re on the same playing field and they all have each other’s backs. They put their phones down and start talking to each other. We’re all on the same team.”