After bruising process, Kansas City Council awards airport concessions contract to Vantage Airport Group
Canada’s Vantage Airport Group won out over four rival proposers Thursday to run the concessions at Kansas City International Airport’s new terminal, slated to open in March 2023. The City Council vote was seen as a crucial decision, affecting visitors’ first impressions of the city for years to come.
A fierce battle over who will oversee the restaurants, bars and stores at the new Kansas City International Airport terminal culminated Thursday with the City Council approving Vantage Airport Group to oversee the concessions.
The council voted 9 to 2 in support of Vantage over four competing proposers after a bruising weeks-long selection process. The prize was a lucrative 15-year contract to manage the airport’s food, beverage and retail operations. It was seen by many as the best chance to showcase local brands and make the airport a favorable point of pride with travelers to the city.
After the new terminal opens in 18 months, local vendors are expected to include a variety of barbecue operators, including Bo Lings Chinese Restaurant, Martin City Brewery, Stockyards Brewing, a Made in KC Marketplace, Parisi Coffee, City Market and 18th and Vine eateries and Christopher Elbow Chocolates.
A selection committee consisting of the aviation director and a city manager representative, a Southwest Airlines representative, a small business representative and Councilman Dan Fowler unanimously recommended Vantage Airport Group, based in Vancouver, over four other proposers: Delaware North; Greater Kansas City Restaurant & Retail Group; MERA KC; and PLTR-SSP @KCI LLC.
Supporters said Vantage was chosen because it had the best financial proposal, good partnerships with local Kansas City vendors and community organizations, and a strong commitment to disadvantaged, minority and small businesses.
Fowler abstained from the council vote but said the selection committee thought Vantage was the clear choice, namely because it offered the best opportunity for local businesses to participate at KCI.
“I wanted this airport to scream Kansas City when people got off an airplane,” Fowler said. “And Vantage had the best proposal that I thought did that.”
Opponents argued the Vantage proposal was risky financially for both the city and airport tenants. They also said it would lead to pricier concessions and left out marquee brands such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, J. Rieger & Co. Distillery and several James Beard-winning chefs.
Councilwoman Teresa Loar was particularly critical of the selection. She argued the other proposers had more airport experience across the country and used a more conventional concession management model than Vantage’s developer model, where Vantage does not directly operate any concessions.
Loar also said she wasn’t getting answers to her questions and that the selection process wasn’t transparent or fair.
“This is the most corrupt thing I have ever been involved with outside of the police department vote,” Loar complained before she stormed out of a Sept. 29 committee hearing. “We need to trust the process, yes, but we need to verify what that information is and we have not done that.”
Vantage representatives defended the group’s track record, saying they have been successful in 31 airports worldwide, including at LaGuardia Airport’s new terminal in New York City and at Chicago Midway.
At Thursday’s council meeting, those voting for the contract were Mayor Quinton Lucas and council members Eric Bunch, Lee Barnes, Andrea Bough, Brandon Ellington, Ryana Parks-Shaw, Melissa Robinson, Kevin McManus and Kevin O’Neill.
Those voting against were Loar and Councilwoman Katheryn Shields. Heather Hall was absent.
Shields said the full council needed a more detailed comparison of the five proposals in a public hearing to assure that members were choosing the best option.
“I don’t believe we know this is the best proposal,” she said.
Councilwoman Andrea Bough agreed it was a tough decision but added she was comfortable with the selection committee’s recommendation.
“There are a lot of good brands in each of these proposals,” Bough said. “I could find nothing concrete in the process to say that we should throw it out.”
Prior to the council’s vote, Vantage did make one change in response to community opposition. The original Vantage proposal included the Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich operator. But after the LGBTQ Commission of Kansas City released a letter on Sept. 20 critical of Chick-fil-A CEO’s hostile views toward the gay community, Vantage struck the fast food chain from its restaurant list.
As various council members chose sides in the concession fight, some attention focused on campaign contributions from the competing proposers to various council members.
Campaign disclosure reports showed Mayor Lucas received a $1,000 contribution in 2019 from the president of OHM Concession Group, which was part of the Vantage team. Another disclosure showed Loar had received a $500 contribution from Paradies, one of the rival companies, in 2014. Both Lucas and Loar said those contributions would have no impact on how they voted on the matter.
During committee testimony Sept. 29, the losing proposers and several prominent business owners urged the Council to reconsider the selection.
Jasper Mirabile, owner and chef of Jasper’s Italian Restaurant, said he was approached by a number of the proposers but chose to go with SSP America/Paradies.
“They had a chance to team up with the Kansas City Chiefs, and we thought that was just fantastic,” Mirabile said. “There was no other choice.”
Jim Unruh, with Colliers, a Kansas City commercial real estate firm, urged the council to go with the Kansas City Restaurant Group, whose proposal included Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, Roasterie Coffee, Andre’s Confiserie Suisse, and Patrick Mahomes’ 15 and the Mahomies Foundation.
But multiple small and minority business owners praised the Vantage plan. Tyler Enders, co-founder of Made in KC, said his group started talking to prospective concession operators more than two years ago.
“We partnered with Vantage,” Enders said, “because of their integrity, their drive, their yearning to not only learn but to understand, and because of their ability to execute at the highest level.”