This Ontario airport traded big-name chains for local shops, and others are taking notice

At the Thunder Bay International Airport, travelers now choose from craft beer brewed nearby, local produce, and beef jerky from a downtown butcher
By Jon Thompson - Published on Dec 20, 2019
Barista Abdul Aziz works at Nomad, a locally sourced store in Thunder Bay International Airport’s revamped lounge. (Jon Thompson)

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THUNDER BAY—When the Thunder Bay International Airport underwent its first renovation since 1994 last year, its CEO, Ed Schmidtke, took a risk. Along with the $9-million facelift, he chose Pinetree Catering, best known for its Local Motion food truck, to take over the airport lounge and bring in homegrown brands in place of more recognizable chains.

“I’ve always been of the opinion that Thunder Bay punches way above its weight class when it comes to the culinary arts, when it comes to the restaurant scene, the coffee scene, and, by extension as well, the agricultural scene,” says Schmidtke. It was time for his airport to match the city it served.

Twelve months later, the shakeup has paid off. Schmidtke says sales revenue between January and November was up 18 per cent, compared to the same period in 2018. He expects sales to increase next year as well.

The CEO suggests that other airports are interested in replicating the success of his model: “It wouldn’t be appropriate to name them, but I can tell you of at least three airports larger than Thunder Bay that are evaluating the notion of going local as much as they possibly can, and at least a couple of other of my colleagues of a similar size are contemplating the same.”

Larry Leung, founder of airport-retail consultancy Experience the Skies, has noticed the trend. “Over the past five years, North American airports took cues from those around the world in improving authenticity through offering local food/beverage and retail options beyond souvenir shops,” he tells TVO.org in an email. “In a lot of ways, airports are playing catch up to the current tourism scene with demanding travelers clamouring for more city specific moments over the same old stale experiences.” While other airports are increasing local options, Leung says that Thunder Bay is “unique” for the extent to which it has done so.

Pinetree co-owner Nikos Mantis was skeptical at first. Were passengers simply hungry, or would they be willing to pay for a pastrami sandwich made from freshly-baked bread, meat that had been brined, smoked, and slow-cooked in-house, and topped with premium, local Thunder Oak Cheese? Pinetree would also have to turn aside office and family parties through December, traditionally the company’s busiest catering month, for lack of time. “But through some sober second thought, we saw it as a great opportunity to represent ourselves and showcase the best Thunder Bay has to offer,” says Mantis. The end result was Nomad, a departure-lounge café with a wide range of local fare. “I think it has been a smash success for us and the airport.”

Schmidtke’s vision for the concession space has seen it come to carry a diverse range of products, from Bay Street Meats beef jerky to hoodies and t-shirts from Thunder Bay’s Northies clothing company. The entire airport lounge was also licensed so that those who have already passed through security and are awaiting flights can enjoy a range of Sleeping Giant Brewery craft beers anywhere they like.

Sleeping Giant beer is among Thunder Bay’s better-known products ⁠— Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once wore a t-shirt repping its⁠ Northern Logger ale — but it’s only one of the ways the airport taps a captive consumer base. Heartbeat Hot Sauce, just like local maple syrup or the icing on Thunder Bay’s famous Persians, would be confiscated if it were passing through airport security. It can, however, be purchased on the other side of the gates.

Business has taken off for Heartbeat since its products were featured on two seasons of the First We Feast YouTube series, Hot Ones. Appearing in the Thunder Bay airport has increased brand exposure, too, suggests Al Bourbouhakis, the company’s co-founder. “All these people from our community are able to bring a product from our home to someone they know and give them a souvenir of where they come from,” Bourbouhakis says. “We’re now part of that group of products and we’re so excited to be in that category of something people would bring as a token to say, ‘This is from Thunder Bay. I like it and maybe you’ll like it as well.’”

On the public side of airport security, even Aramark, the catering giant responsible for the area, has brought in local flavours at Schmidtke’s request. Potatoes and beef for burgers and fries are local, as is the coffee and the beer. A pizza franchise was replaced with a Thunder Bay original, Eat Local Pizza. According to Eat Local’s founding CEO, Jim Stadey, month-to-month sales over last year have increased between 17 and 20 per cent, but his interest is in the prestige of that real estate. “It's improbable that an airport kiosk will make anywhere close to what we make in a week, but by being there, we’re being part of the idea of industrializing local food and being mainstream food culture,” Stadey says. “We’re big on keeping doors open. This has allowed us to build a relationship with Aramark and who knows where that could go?”

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