For most of its existence, the culinary ambience at Tampa International Airport has been the air-travel equivalent of Dale Mabry Highway: chains, chains and more chains.
But that dreary state of affairs is about to change.
Bhavesh Patel, hired last fall as TIA’s director of concessions, saw that a connection to the community was lacking. Through surveys and what he calls “trend analysis,” Patel worked with HMS Host, which operates concessions for over 80 airports in the U.S., to add five well-known local names to the airport’s roster of restaurants: The Columbia Cafe, the Green Iguana, Shula’s Steak House (and Shula’s Burgers), Cigar City Brewery and Mise en Place, which is opening a wine bar called First Flight.
Late last month, when officials took journalists on a three-hour tour of the new establishments, HMS Host President and CEO Tom Fricke was present at every ribbon-cutting. Fricke, who took over the Maryland-based company in January, told CL that Host is definitely trying to become better-known. “I think it’s important for travelers to know who we are,” he says.
With their investment of $5.8 million in TIA, why not? The company could do with some brand awareness. After working with San Francisco’s airport to up its number of local eateries (which now comprise 85 percent of the airport’s food offerings), Host was dropped by officials in 2005 when they opted instead to contract with individual vendors.
Host is contracted to provide TIA with all of its food, beverage and retail outlets through 2015. When we asked whether investing in the new restaurants was a way for Host to ensure it locks down its next contract, Fricke reacted with disdain. “We did this because this is the right thing to do for the airport. It’s the right thing for the Tampa traveler and we’ll look forward to sitting down and talking about the future here.”
Whatever the financial motivations, these new (yet familiar) restaurants will definitely add some local color to TIA’s culinary landscape. One caveat: Only First Flight is located in the main terminal; the others are in airside areas associated with specific airlines, so you’ll only encounter them if you’re flying on that airline.
Airside E (Delta, Air Canada)
Columbia General Manager Casey Gonzmart boasts about the authenticity of his new establishment, which includes chandeliers imported from Spain, as well as pictures of family members.
As is the case with the other restaurants featured here, you won’t find everything on the menu that you’d find at the flagship, in Columbia’s case its legendary home in Ybor City. Paella, for example, is a no-go because it takes half an hour to prepare, says Gonzmart. Also scratch off stuffed shrimp, grouper, or filets.
But he insists that “all the same ingredients we use in every restaurant, everything we do at other restaurants” will be available. With 94 seats and 12 barstools, and hours from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. (or until the last flight leaves), plenty of travelers will get the chance to take a taste.
Airside A (United, Frontier, Spirit, JetBlue)
For this airport location, which has been up and operating since early April, Green Iguana officials have created a couple of what they call identifying items — the Ybor City Nacho and the Mojo Slider. Head Chef Anthony Chick says that roast pork and black beans are used for the Nacho, which was brought in specifically for the airport restaurant but will soon be integrated into the other locations in Tampa.
Otherwise, this branch of Green Iguana is offering up its usual stew of wraps, sandwiches and salads, and of course, award-winning hamburgers. The bar and grill has a burger of the week program, which gives Chick 52 different options. He likes to develop new ideas, including variations on chicken and turkey, and multiple versions of beef.
“It’s a trial-and-error process to see what customers respond to,” Chick says. “Some of them like the more hip options we have,” like the “Ba Da Bing,” a bistro burger that uses goat cheese and other products. But he admits that most people like the traditional burger, and that’s what’s he’s focusing on at TIA.
Alan Fosco, managing partner for 14 years for Green Iguana, says that he and his partners have looked into breaking out into other markets such as Key West. “We’re building to that point where we can do that,” he says. “It takes a decent amount of equity to do it right.”
Shula’s Bar and Grill/Shula Burger
Airside C (Southwest, Air Tran)
There are a number of high-end steakhouses in Tampa, and Shula’s has been one of the most preeminent since its inception on Westshore in 1994, where it consistently has been a fashionable destination for the city’s high rollers, or just those who’ve got enough cash to blow out for a night.
The Bar and Grill is the third such Shula’s to be created in a Florida airport (following ones built in Miami and Fort Myers). And right next door is Shula’s Burgers, which includes such cholesterol extravaganzas as “The Don,” a burger and a hot dog under a brioche-style bun.
“The Don” himself, legendary former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, made the trip up from his home in Miami Lakes for the big press event. He was joined by his son Dave, also a former head coach who stepped into running the steak and burger franchises after he lost his job with the Cincinnati Bengals in the late 1990s.
Cigar City Brewing
Standing right next to Shula’s Burgers is Cigar City Brewing, the Joey Redner-founded Tampa brewery that has had a meteoric rise since its humble beginnings in 2009.
Redner’s brewery on Spruce Street in West Tampa now employs over 30 people, and its popular beers are now found throughout the Bay area, in grocery stores like Publix and Circle K, and throughout the U.S. and the world. And it’s building another production facility at its complex.
The outpost at TIA distinguishes itself as the only such facility to brew beers in an airport. “We were adamant about brewing on site,” Redner says. “A lot of people will call something a brewpub but they’re not actually brewing anything there.”
Not at TIA. Cigar City will produce double batches, or three barrels at a time, using a 1.5 barrel brewing system.
There’s also a special brew for airport patrons: the Tony Jannus Pale Ale, which commemorates the first commercial flight in the U.S. Redner says the beer includes one of Cigar City’s signature ingredients, the Spanish Cedar. He calls it a ”very easy drinking Pale Ale that’s aged on threshold levels of Cedar with three hops.”
Unlike the above-listed establishments, you don’t need an airline ticket to check out First Flight, the wine bar created by the folks who have made Mise en Place one of Tampa’s premier restaurants. You’lll find it smack dab in the middle of the main terminal, before you must show your ID and ticket to take the shuttle to one of the airsides for your flight.
Initial plans had First Flight situated in Delta’s Airside E, but subsequent plans moved it to the center of the airport. That means you can stop there for the price of a parking fee in the short-term parking garage (actually free for less than an hour).
Maryann Ferenc, the proprietor of the iconic Tampa eatery, says that the menu resembles a passport. “The idea of taking a trip without leaving the airport in terms of the food and wine became a part of our whole concept.” She says she and her crew at Mise have bought into TIA Executive Director Joe Lopano’s vision, “so we wanted to do whatever they thought would be best for the airport.”
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