Airport dining takes off with quality, local and healthy food options
Pilots Kitchen and Bar at Heathrow's T5 aims to offer travellers "high-quality, delicious dishes with bold and interesting flavours"

Airport dining takes off with quality, local and healthy food options

Samantha Lster
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Carluccios Penne Giardiniera
Carluccio’s operates the same menus within its airport outlets as in restaurants across the country

Airports are not a traditional source of exciting restaurant news, but with the wave of food court refurbishments, destination dining for passengers is taking off, and providing new opportunities for suppliers. Produce Business UK investigates the potential for the fresh fruit and vegetable trade

Airports have been successfully revamping their shopping and service offers as part of a long-running strategy to convince passengers that their holidays start from the moment they check-in.

The next logical step after introducing beauty bars, Harrods’ concessions and fashion shows is to overhaul the catering, which traditionally has relied upon fast food concessions. Instead, the trend now is for cooked-from-scratch meals and healthy options with ingredients sourced locally.

Heathrow and Gatwick, as the UK’s largest airports, have been ahead of the game, even introducing fine dining options. However, regional airports are quickly catching up; undertaking a number of food court refurbishments.

Last year, Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham airports all announced plans to either refurbish or expand their food offering. Edinburgh Airport, meanwhile, signed up to the Scottish Food and Drink Pledge as a ‘provenance airport’, making a commitment to work with food operators to ensure they offer a fair selection of Scottish produce.

Gordon Dewar, chief executive of Edinburgh Airport, explains: “Scotland’s vast array of incredible produce deserves to be celebrated, and in what better way than at Scotland’s global gateway”.

This year will also see the next phase of Newcastle Airport’s facilities redevelopment, which has already resulted in the opening of a Caffé Ritazza and a Marks & Spencer Food to Go outlet on its landside.

David Laws, CEO of Newcastle Airport, says the plans follow the overhaul of its airside offer: “[We’ve] made a significant investment in our departure lounge over the last 12 months, and we look forward to further announcements in due course.”  

According to research from Mintel, 28% of passengers surveyed last year as part of its Travel Retail Report said they wanted healthy food options, and a further 28% said a greater variety of foodservice outlets would improve the experience.

Nicholas Carroll, Mintel retail analyst, says that while passengers still require a time-sensitive eating experience, they also want quality.

“Coffee shops are the most popular foodservice destination within airports, with 43% of airport visitors having purchased some items from them in the last 12 months,” he notes.

“This compares to 27% who visited a fast food outlet, 24% who visited a pub/bar and 24% who visited a restaurant. Whilst the limited time afforded to individuals passing through airports has traditionally lent itself well to fast food outlets, it seems that eating habits are changing with consumers demanding quality alongside fast service, mirroring the changes we are seeing in foodservice in the wider UK market.

“Coffee shops such as Starbucks can provide a fast service along with a perceived better quality of food than say a McDonald’s, and this is part of the appeal, and popularity, of such outlets in airports. However, it is not just the coffee shops which are providing an alternative, sandwich shops such as Eat and restaurant chains like Giraffe can also provide fast but quality food and give consumers a real choice in airport eating.”

Mintel’s senior foodservice analyst Helena Childe adds that airports have had to re-think their food offer due to declining footfall.

“Wavering passenger numbers in recent years have pushed airport caterers to look to maximise the opportunity from existing footfall by improving the catering offers in these locations,” she says.

“To counteract consumer concerns of airport catering being expensive and poor quality, many airports have been overhauling their range of outlets.”

Pilots Kitchen and Bar in Heathrow’s T5 salmon toast
A fresh dish from Pilots Kitchen and Bar 

A new supply avenue for produce

This opens up avenues for suppliers, with many new players to the market creating a unique selling point (USP) out of fresh, quality ingredients.

One such operator is the Rhubarb group of restaurants and catering suppliers, which has a diverse portfolio of sites – from Mayfair restaurants to contracts to supply the Royal Albert Hall. One of its locations is Pilots Kitchen and Bar in Heathrow’s T5.

Martyn Barratt, Rhubarb travel director, points out that it’s important to get the right suppliers in place.

“We have a strong and reliable network of suppliers who support our offer, including fresh vegetables from First Choice and Nigel Frederick for our meat deliveries. These suppliers deliver an impressive mix of British and locally-sourced produce, where possible, as well as products of high quality and superiority.”

Barratt notes that menu preparation has to take into account the limited amount of time for cooking and serving dishes at airports, which adds to the need for produce that can help to deliver a quality eating experience.

“Timing is crucial to the success of airport dining,” he says.

“By ensuring food and beverages are delivered swiftly to customers we can guarantee that their restaurant visit adds to the whole airport experience, rather than it being a stressful or rushed meal. We do this by opting for slow-cooked dishes [that] only get better with time or fast-cooked meals and fresh salads. Our menu is created with timing always at the forefront of the chefs’ minds.

“An essential part of the Pilots Kitchen and Bar ethos is to offer travellers high-quality, delicious dishes with bold and interesting flavours. We have found this simple yet vital formula has in the past been so often lacking from airport dining. This is changing [now] and we are proud to be a part of it. It has been exciting to be part of this movement.”

Simon Kossoff, chairman of Carluccio’s, which operates out of two terminals at Heathrow, agrees that traditional airport dining has lacked in experience, but notes that the reality has provided an exciting challenge for restaurateurs.

“Carluccio’s operates the same menus within its airport outlets as in restaurants across the country,” he says.

“There is so much competition both on the high street and within airports that the offering must always be diverse and suitable for specialist diners, as well as those with only a little time on their hands.

“At the airport restaurants, Carluccio’s caters to gluten-free customers, vegetarians and vegans, and there is also a two-course children’s menu. Staff are always aware that some customers may be in a rush, while others are looking for a quiet break before a long flight, so they must tailor their service accordingly.”

With operators looking for new, and innovative, ways to secure passenger spend, evidently there’s a window of opportunity for suppliers to get onboard with this flying market.

Carluccios Lamb Rosmarino 1
Carluccio’s Lamb Rosmarino 

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