Invitation coming soon for businesses eager to operate in concession-friendly new Salt Lake City International Airport

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Businesses that operate at Salt Lake City International Airport, such as Cat Cora's Kitchen restaurant, will soon be asked to respond to a request for a proposal to operate in the new airport, under construction and set to open its first sections in August 2020.

Concessions were an afterthought when Salt Lake City International Airport opened in 1961.

No more.

Designs for the new $3.6 billion airport under construction around the existing one have extensive plans for retail and food hubs every few gates along two long concourses.

The process of determining which companies get to set up shop in these commercial cogs will begin in the next week or so, when the city Department of Airports issues a request for proposals (RFP) for retail spaces scattered throughout the expansive facility. A request for restaurant proposals will go out a few weeks later, said John Buckner, Salt Lake City International’s director of commercial and administration services.

“We were excited to be able to work with the architects and consultants to properly size and place concessions in a manner consistent with passenger use,” he added.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Buckner, director of administration and commercial services for the Salt Lake City Department of Airports, uses a map to show how the new airport will look.

The existing airport has 75,000 square feet of concession space. Some has been around since the beginning, such as the third-floor restaurant above Terminal One that now houses Gordon Biersch Brewery. Its original name was the aero-appropriate Kitty Hawk.

But much of the remaining commercial space was squeezed into open nooks and crannies, or set up along empty walls or stretches formerly occupied by banks of pay telephones. That occurred back in the days before heavy security was put into place and airlines quit serving food on flights, leaving that responsibility to airports — along with its revenue-generating potential.

The new airport will devote closer to 125,000 square feet to retail and food sales. But it’s more, Buckner said, than just adding space. It’s more a matter of commercial outlets being laid out with the “psychology of getting to the gate” as an uppermost consideration.

“Food needs to be where people are, which is not way down the concourse but close to the gate where [people] need to be,” he said, noting that retail courts will be positioned every 300 feet. “There’s an evolving psychology of [passengers in an airport] wanting to get something, be satisfied and not be afraid of being left behind.”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Squatters Pub Brewery restaurant at the Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City is pictured Monday, April 2, 2018.

Same goes for concessionaires.

None of the existing business-license holders will be grandfathered in when the west half of the new airport’s south concourse opens in August 2020, or four months later when a similar stretch of the north concourse is brought online.

To ensure a level playing field for the seven to 10-year leases, giving existing license holders and newcomers equal shots, Wolfe has conducted 21 sessions in the past 13 months for businesses interested in applying for licenses.

He laid out forecasts of foot traffic through the airport — 24 million people passed through there last year, said spokeswoman Nancy Volmer — as well as airport expectations for concessionaire service standards, hours of operations, staffing numbers and the extensive security-clearance requirements for personnel and deliveries to concourse stores.

Wolfe also cited a company’s proposed investment in a site and the financial return it is prepared to give the Airport authority as factors in the evaluation.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant at the Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, April 2, 2018.

There is flexibility in the process, he and Bucker noted. As well as doling out individual locations, there are packages of sites. These often are appealing to national and international-level companies that operate in numerous airports and can attract franchises familiar to travelers from all over, catering to needs for “comfort food.”

But these big operators also represent many Utah businesses.

Wolfe pointed to HMS Host as an example. The North American subsidiary of an Italian company called Autogrill, Maryland-based HMS has 15 licenses at Salt Lake City International that it has used to bring in Market Street Grill, Cafe Rio, Greek Souvlaki, Salt Lake Pizza & Pasta, Millcreek Coffee Roasters and High West Distillery.

“Large concessionaries often help to populate the facility with local businesses that aren’t ready to try on their own,” Wolfe said.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) A rendering of a new terminal that will be in the new Salt Lake City International Airport.

Since the airport will put out an RFP rather than seeking bids, he said the review process can better evaluate which applications best meet passenger needs and which are likely to be successful.

“We don’t want to bring someone in to fail,” Wolfe added.