Conceding to Concessions

Airport Eateries Surprise the Discerning Palate

by Greg Beets

Airport food has long been the butt of many a bad joke, the kind you'd expect to hear at a comedy club called Chuckle's -- and no wonder. Even the most remedial traveler can tell you that airport concessions tend to hawk food of a mediocre pedigree at prices that could make a Rockefeller go Greyhound. In the past, airport concessionaires have been able to pull this off due to the widespread use of socialist-flavored single-vendor contracts that create a virtual monopoly over a captive consumer base of passengers. It's enough to make Mao join Junior Achievement. Which is too bad, because airports have the potential to be fun places to eat and hang out, particularly during the fevered hustle of the holiday season. One good thing to do is sit in an airport restaurant or at the bar and talk loudly about how much Texas sucks and how glad you'll be to get back to New York. This is especially effective if you're sitting by yourself. The airport can also be a great place to bring dates. Since they are usually bustling with all sorts of interesting people to make fun of, you won't have to worry about what to say after recounting all the poop jokes from the latest Jim Carrey vehicle. If you don't believe me, ask my dad. He used to take my mom out for cheap coffee at the airport and she married him for it.

Though such romantic notions pale in the face of $1.50 soda pops, food at good ol' Mueller actually fares better than you might think. The majority of all food, beverage, and merchandise sales at Austin's airport are handled by Host-Marriott, a subsidiary of the hotel chain that operates concessions in 66 airports around the globe. However, 30 percent of airport vending space falls under the auspices of the city's Disadvantaged Business Partners (DAP) program, which encourages participation by woman- and minority-owned businesses such as Delta Food Service, operator of the Capitol Bar & Grill and Texas Restaurant.

According to Nancy Foster, general manager of Host-Marriott's Mueller operations, no less than 60 percent of all airport passengers buy something from them. This percentage is ominously referred to as the "capture rate," and it is contributed to whenever a purchase of a slice of pizza, a vodka gimlet, or even a copy of the latest Penthouse is made at the airport.

Aside from artificially created market dominance, one probable explanation for Host-Marriott's ability to coax a purchase out of more than half of all passengers is the savory additions of Taco Bell and Starbucks Coffee to the airport food menu. Host-Marriott operates each outlet according to the commandments put forth by the mighty chains themselves, and the resulting products are just as tasty as those you'd find at franchise locations out in the real world. Even more appetizing is the fact that both places use street pricing for just about everything but the soft drinks.

We can all be thankful that Taco Bell's .69-.89-$1.09 mantra stands unbroken at Mueller. You can even grab a margarita from the stand right next door to complete your skyward fiesta. At the same time, Starbucks helps groggy morning travellers face the suits in Dallas with razor-sharp ambition by pouring plenty of piping hot, gourmet stimulation at Southwest Fun Fare-style prices. A small coffee o' the day sets you back $1.20, while the large retails for $1.35. The airport Starbucks even manages to capture a sliver of the bourgeois, hipster doofishness that has made Starbucks a household epithet among the more indie-minded caffeine addicts.

Over in the cattle call of the Southwest gate area, you can irritate fellow travellers by screaming, "Niners!" in the sports bar, or you can shut yourself up with a $3.25 slice of pizza from Pizza Strada. This stadium-style pizza tastes a bit like white elephant to me, especially when you could buy three or four comparable frozen pizzas for the same price. For the folks whose pockets are heavier with lint than change, you can always slum it and pick up a $2.80 hot dog.

If you get fogged in, bumped off, or laid over for any significant period of time, your growling panza may accept nothing less than a full-fledged, sit-down meal. In such scenarios, your destination would be the Capitol Bar & Grill and/or Texas Restaurant, located to the left of the main concourse by the Conquest Airlines ticket counter. Capitol Bar & Grill serves varied menu items cafeteria-style, and a small selection of deli sandwiches on rolls with Guyere cheese and chow-chow sauce (which is a pretty darn fancy-pantsed condiment to be serving at the airport, if you ask me).

The menu-serviced Texas Restaurant offers a slim-but-solid selection of Southwestern favorites amid the true staple of any Austin eatery -- a collection of Amado Peña prints. The restaurant also delivers a grounded bird's-eye view of gate-side happenings. Though prices tend to soar toward ear-popping territory, food quality is actually quite passable.

On a recent visit, my companion-in-gluttony Buzz Moran ordered chicken-fried steak ($6.95), while I took the Evel Knievel route with the chili cheeseburger ($5.45). Both of us were surprised that the chicken-fried steak had indeed originated as a cube steak rather than the chicken-fried burger many lesser establishments try to pawn off as the authentic item. The mild, white gravy begged for more viscosity, but at least it offered some manner of taste. At the other end of the table, my chili cheeseburger really hit the spot for size and a zippy fix of fast-food flavor. Both meals were served with an iceburg lettuce-based salad and a hearty heap of ranch-cut fries with the skins on.

Though my $1.15 Coke was flatter than Lubbock, this would've been easy to overlook had the service not fallen somewhere between indifferent and downright hostile. When Buzz innocently ordered the chicken fried steak, our server scowled at him like he was the Unabomber©. Perhaps our server was having a bum day, or maybe it was the fact that we didn't dress the part of power-munching jet-setters. Either way, Texas Friendly wasn't spoken here.

Despite such minor unpleasantries, I managed to stumble away with my negative notions about airport food slightly bent, if not shattered completely. And with the scheduled opening of the new Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in 1998, things can only get better.

According to City Aviation Director Charles Gates, the new airport will have between 2,500 and 3,000 square feet dedicated to food service, compared to the 800-1,000 square feet currently available at Mueller. Most of Bergstrom's culinary attractions will be centralized at a mall-style food court called The Marketplace. And owning up to the "Live Music Capital of the World" moniker, this food court will have a live-music stage where local artists will have the opportunity to sing such high-flying hits as "Jet Airliner," "Sky Pilot," and of course, "Free Bird."

Another good thing about food service at the new airport is that the city will be awarding multiple food contracts to individual companies as opposed to one contract to a master operator. This system was recommended by the city's airport consultants, and it should bring about improved food quality, lower prices, and more choices. The aviation department held a meeting November 13 to garner ideas for food service contracts at the new airport from prospective vendors, and another meeting is planned for February, 1996.

Gates estimates that as many as 14 separate contracts could be awarded for food, beverage, and merchandise at Bergstrom. He expects to have more well-known national franchises involved in the food court, as well as vendors whose offerings reflect the character of Austin. Hopefully, these plans will taste as good as they sound.

In the meantime, travelers fighting their way through Mueller on Thanksgiving Eve can at least take solace in the knowledge that while airport food certainly isn't the most pleasant thing to put in your mouth, it is probably better than it's ever been before. In a day where consumer choice is just about the only meager luxury that hasn't been systematically whittled away by a regressive social climate, the opportunity to cram ourselves full of tasty, affordable foodstuffs before flying halfway across the nation to visit relatives we don't like is something even I can be thankful for. n Greg Beets is editor of Hey Hey Buffet!, Austin's premier guide to sneeze-guard cuisine.

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