Restaurants are as excited as flyers for the new KCI airport. Here’s what it took to get ready
For these restaurant owners, who are used to running hectic businesses by themselves, opening a location at the airport has been a new experience. But they're proud to be representing Kansas City to the rest of the world through the new terminal.
When the new Kansas City International Airport terminal opens Tuesday, it’ll be a new chapter for more than 20 local businesses who will debut their airport locations — including the City Market’s Brown and Loe.
Owner Kate McGlaughlin felt lucky that OHM, the company in charge of the new terminal’s concessions, reached out to her. She’s been in the restaurant business for decades, helping run her father’s restaurant, Harry’s Country Club, and then opening Brown and Loe together. But she wasn’t sure what to expect of an airport location where another company would be such a big part of the process.
“I’ve never given somebody our name, our recipes – I mean, not to sound corny, but you know, my baby,” said McGlaughlin. “It certainly has given me anxiety, but I have been beyond pleased, more than happy with everything that has happened thus far.”
She doesn’t yet know how many sales she can expect, and the hours of operation will be wider because passengers will be at the airport during all hours of the day and night. The menu will start off small, with a few appetizers, breakfasts and other items and will later expand once the airport gets its bearings.
For many local businesses, a location at the new airport is a chance to show off to visitors. But some restaurant owners also see it as a debut for Kansas City itself — and an opportunity for homegrown culture to make a first impression on the world.
“Kansas City’s that little gem in the middle of the country that the coasts don’t know anything about,” said Joe Paris, chief revenue officer of Parisi Coffee. “As it’s grown, it’s been really fun that we’ve gotten to be a part of it.”
It’s also a new experience for restaurant owners who are used to managing hectic businesses independently. Setting up a business at the airport has involved unique complications like airport security. Menus will be different as well — slimmed down for the first few weeks until more staff are hired, and more focused on portable options.
Most notably, OHM, responsible for filling the new KCI with mostly local businesses, has handled key logistics, like hiring.
“It’s been actually very stress-less, compared to opening a restaurant,” said Carlos Mortera, owner of Poio Mexican BBQ in Kansas City, Kansas. “This has been kind of a walk in the park.”
Tweaking menus for travelers
Poio’s airport location, part of the “Made in KC” food court, will feature meals that are easy to take on the go, like sandwiches and rice bowls.
“I was just thinking about, when I go to different airports, that I’m usually in a hurry,” Mortera said. “I need something that I can grab and go or that I can eat pretty fast. Something that’s not going to be messy, that’s not going to get all over me.”
Martin City Brewing Company will have an array of beers on tap, as well as burgers, salads and other brewery fare. Its airport pizzas, however, will only be personal size, rather than the full size available at other locations.
“We were kind of instructed, ‘airport’s not where you share pizza,’” said Matt Moore, founder and CEO of Martin City Brewing. “It should be very quick and easy from the kitchen side.”
The KCI vendors have had to consider a transient but captive customer base, space constraints — and each other. In a typical restaurant location, owners can do whatever they want within the terms of their lease, said Joe Paris, of Parisi Coffee. But the businesses at the airport have been less focused on competition.
“This has been much more collaborative, much more discussion based, and working together as a team,” he said. “When you build a street side location, it’s a lot more isolated.”
Parisi’s airport coffee shop will sell its standard array of espressos and seasonal beverages, as well as portable food like sandwiches and local snacks. Its décor will feature Union Station and the history of Kansas City, Paris said. And he relishes the chance to show off his hometown to visitors from all over.
“The city is just doing so much cool stuff,” Paris said. “We love being proud of it, and watching this city just get more and more new and unique opportunities to keep growing and making that national presence.”
Labor shortages continue to be a challenge
One major step hasn’t been easy: hiring staff. There’s already a shortage of service industry workers, and the airport’s location — about 20 miles from the city center — doesn’t help.
About 140 employees from the old airport vendors have been rehired to work at the new location, said Mike Steinbacher, director of operations for OHM. While manager positions have been easier to fill, it’s been harder to find servers, bartenders and most of all, cooks.
“It just seems like the service industry has shifted mightily,” Steinbacher said. “It’s a tough market, it’s a tough sell.”
Restaurants started training employees at their original locations first, before moving to the terminal for further instruction, Steinbacher said.
Another bottleneck is making sure everyone has the security credentials they need. While getting the new terminal ready, hundreds of people have needed badges to access the airport, including construction workers, vendors and suppliers. Even more will need access after the terminal opens.
“It’s an overwhelming experience for their system,” Steinbacher said. “It’s just not moving as fast as it normally does.”
Still, Steinbacher, who previously worked for former airport concessions company HMSHost for nearly 20 years, is excited for the modern look and high-tech amenities of the new terminal. Features include automated self-serve beer taps and payment through facial recognition or palm scanning. Eventually, there will be a robot that serves coffee.
It’s a huge contrast to the old airport, which Steinbacher feels might have been a turnoff for conventions and other lucrative business.
“With this being the doorstep of Kansas City now, it’s going to be a huge welcome and a huge draw for the rest of the city,” he said. “It is going to be our calling card for everyone else to come join us.”