How SLC airport prevents travelers from being gouged at its restaurants

Policy says you shouldn’t be on the hook for paying more for food, drinks and other items once you pass through security.

(Photo illustration by Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Market Street Grill at its location in downtown Salt Lake City, left, and at Salt Lake City International Airport, right. The Tribune analyzed prices at both locations, as well as other local shops and restaurants in Utah, to see if prices are the same outside the airport as well as past security.

We’ve all been there.

Amid the swirl of activity from frantic flyers, you snag a wrap from a generic airport deli. It’s not worth the $16 you just plopped down, but that’s the cost of fueling up before taking to the skies.

That’s a familiar scene that the team behind Salt Lake City International Airport wanted to avoid.

To save travelers from sticker shock, the sparkling new multibillion-dollar airport instituted a policy to bar vendors from charging more than they do out on the street.

“When people get the notion that they’re not being gouged, or they’re not paying significantly more for something than they might otherwise be, they’ll buy it,” airport Executive Director Bill Wyatt said. “That’s clearly proved to be the case here.”

According to an airport shopping excursion of sorts by The Salt Lake Tribune, the pricing policy seems to be working. In most cases, concessionaires appear to be complying.

In a few instances, airport prices were moderately higher than comparable locations in the community. Sometimes, though, the airport rate was actually cheaper.

Wyatt said he brought street pricing to Salt Lake City because he saw it work at Oregon’s Portland International Airport, which he previously oversaw as the Port of Portland’s executive director.

That success, he said, stemmed from travelers — especially locals — getting used to the idea that they could dine at the airport or pick up headphones for a price similar to a shop downtown.

Vendors are largely compliant

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Squatters Pub Brewery at Salt Lake City International Airport, Monday, June 26, 2023.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Squatters Pub Brewery in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, June 27, 2023.

Each store at Salt Lake City International has a comparable location or multiple spots outside the airport that officials use to reference pricing. If a vendor wants to boost prices, it must notify the concessions team and show that prices also went up at the street location.

Rocio Gould, an Idaho resident who was passing through the airport last week, praised the policy.

“It’s good for everybody, right?” she said. “We shouldn’t pay more money than outside. I know I always pay a lot of money for water, especially, and I don’t like that.”

Good news for Gould: Only a handful of items The Tribune reviewed June 23 was more pricey at the airport than at the locations officials use to compare costs.

That 16-ounce hot coffee at Beans & Brews Coffee House? It’s $2.65 whether you buy it on concourse A or across from Liberty Park.

A $1.99 pack of Extra gum from Hudson’s Land Speed Depot? Away from the airport, it’s $1.99 at a Speedway, too.

Craving a bacon and egg waffle from Bruges Belgian Bistro? That’ll be $9 regardless of whether you choose to dig in while waiting for a flight or after taking a stroll through Pioneer Park.

From a 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade at Maverik to a package of Extra peppermint gum at Land Speed Depot, most convenience stores at Salt Lake City International Airport keep prices fairly in line with outside stores.

From a double Bacon Smash at Smashburger to an entree at Panda Express, most vendors at Salt Lake City International Airport generally keep prices in line with their other stores.

The Apple EarPods you forgot at home? They cost $19 to replace whether you buy them at Tech on the Go in the terminal plaza or directly from an Apple store outside the airport.

Those same headphones, however, were listed at $29.99 at The Salt Lake Tribune convenience store. A representative for Hudson, which runs the shop, said the earbuds were mistagged and would have rung up for the same $19 they cost outside the airport.

At Squatters Pub Brewery on concourse A, a 20-ounce beer cost $8, while the restaurant’s downtown location had the same size beer listed for $7.50.

Rick Seven, marketing manager for Salt Lake Brewing Co., which operates Squatters, said the pub was in the middle of revamping its menu and that the downtown location’s drink menu had not been updated yet.

The pricing was different between the two locations for no more than a week and a half, he said, and had been updated by June 27 to set the price of draft beer at $8 in both places.

“You just happened to time it,” he said, “perfectly wrong.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Snacks at The Salt Lake Tribune store at Salt Lake City International Airport, Monday, June 26, 2023.

At the airport’s Market Street Grill, meanwhile, a two-piece order of fish and chips ran $18.99, and the cheapest draft Bud Light on the menu rang up as $6.75. At the restaurant’s downtown location, those same fish and chips cost a dollar less, and a Bud Light was $4.25.

Concourse A’s Jamba sold a small mango-a-go-go for $6.99, while the location on Salt Lake City’s 400 South had the same smoothie for 40 cents less.

A representative of HMSHost, which operates Market Street Grill and Jamba in the airport, said he would have the company’s public relations department call to discuss the higher airport rates. No call came.

How does the airport ensure the policy is followed?

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A collection of local restaurants at Salt Lake City International Airport, Monday, June 26, 2023.

Wyatt, the airport’s executive director, said there isn’t much tolerance for charging more than street pricing — even if it’s a minimal increase.

“You’ve got to be very careful because once you start … looking the other way at somebody who’s 3% higher, then all of a sudden, people will take notice,” he said. “I can tell you these folks all keep an eye on each other. It’s a very competitive space out here, and they don’t want to see someone taking advantage of a situation that isn’t available to them as well.”

Because the airport’s concessions team is small, there is no way to constantly check pricing and enforce the policy. Airport officials instead rely on complaints via social media and through email, feedback from workers who may notice price hikes, and walking the premises themselves to check.

While he’s confident in the level of compliance the airport does see, Brad Wolfe, the airport’s commercial manager, knows items do slip through the cracks at times.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Wolfe said. “We honestly don’t have the time just to be doing that on a regular basis, but we do our best to keep up on it.”

Although the airport can issue fines of up to $500 for each violation, Wolfe said he’s never imposed such a penalty.

Kylie Bouley, the airport’s commercial program coordinator, said she and Wolfe have a good relationship with vendors and trust those operators to comply as best they can with the policy.

“If something happens,” she said, “it’s more of a fluke than a systemic, pervasive issue.”

Could routine audits be more useful?

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wasatch Brew Pub and plane traffic at Salt Lake City International Airport, Monday, June 26, 2023.

At Portland International, where street pricing has been on the books since at least the 1970s, airport officials have a more formal process for price checks, according to Kaitlin Hunter, senior manager of concessions development.

Vendor leases in the City of Roses contain a provision that allows regular audits of pricing.

“I have a concessions team,” Hunter said, “that spends many, many, many hours ensuring that those prices are the same as the street.”

And those efforts appear to do the trick. Hunter estimates about 80% of Portland International’s compliance comes through the audits, with the remainder from traveler complaints.

Just about every audit the airport does, she said, uncovers some level of noncompliance.

For now, formal audits aren’t in the cards for Salt Lake City.

Wolfe might reinstate a secret shopper program, which operated at the old airport, but such an initiative has been put on the back burner until the airport’s continuing expansion slows from its frenetic pace.

Wyatt, however, doesn’t seem to be in any rush to bring back such a formal review.

“We don’t feel we need to right now,” he said, “but if the need ever arose, we would happily do that.”

Tribune reporter Alixel Cabrera contributed to this story.