Why it’s so hard to get tasty airport food — and how I finally found some

OPINION: I was initially disgusted by the concept behind Toronto Pearson’s “Kensington Market Street Food.” But then I ate easily the best meal I’ve ever eaten in an airport
By Corey Mintz - Published on Feb 18, 2020
Food sales at Toronto Pearson Airport exceeded $217 million in 2018. (iStock.com/JHVEPhoto)

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I used to be on top of preparing pre-flight snacks. The idea of arriving at the airport without sandwiches, nuts, and dried fruit was unfathomable to me. But between our newborn baby, and the flight path of last week — from Winnipeg to Toronto for a few days, then to Fort Myers, Florida, with a stopover in Newark, then back to Toronto for a day, then back to Winnipeg — I have been eating in these places. The experience left me with two questions: Why is airport food so bad? And why is it so expensive?

Taking the second question first: airport food is overpriced partly because it can be. Once you’re on the property and hungry, you have no choice. But, also, airport restaurants have an increased labour rate (unlike your favourite restaurants, they are mostly unionized and offer competitive wages and benefits), a higher cost for moving goods (food is transitioned through a secure, complex logistics warehouse instead of wheeled off a truck from an alley entrance), and an inability to limit operating hours to busy periods (some of them are open 24 hours a day).

That is how I ended up paying US$14 in Newark for a caprese sandwich that could have been considered a blunt weapon.

As for quality: Toronto Pearson Airport, for example, has about 50 million passengers a year, 30 million of them in Terminal 1 alone. Food sales in 2018 exceeded $217 million. So food production has to be streamlined.

Having said that, I recently learned that it is possible to make good food at the airport.

It’s strange to bump into anyone you know at an airport. Like seeing your Grade 5 teacher at the mall, it’s a perfectly natural and statistically likely thing. But it always takes you by surprise.

After passing through Terminal 1 security, I headed down the escalator, glanced to the left, and did a triple-take.

In a corner of the landing, just before the walkways that lead to various gates, was a food-court replica of my old neighbourhood. In a spot that once held one of our nation’s many Tim Hortons, a “Kensington Market Street Food” sign hung above stalls featuring Torteria San Cosme and Dirty Bird, two real restaurants from the real world. Ordering kiosks (not yet operational) were adorned with street signs: Baldwin St., Kensington Ave., Augusta Av. (sic), and Nassau St.

For a moment, I thought that I was being Scrooged and that this was my Ghost of Christmas Past.

For five years, I lived on Baldwin Street in Kensington Market. San Cosme was right across from me; Dirty Bird was next door.

My first reaction to this Epcot Center version of my old home was disgust. I was pleased by the prospect of finding a good Mexican sandwich or fried chicken and waffles at the airport. But this seemed like a final indignity for Kensington. The community is on its last legs, unable to prevent its own devolution from a thriving, multi-ethnic, retail wonderland into a tourist attraction and Instagram backdrop — and it’s now going to be forced to live on as a phony streetscape bathed in fluorescent airport lights.

But sitting out front, going over spreadsheets, were San Cosme’s owner, Arturo Anhalt, and its executive chef, Barjinder Bains. I know them enough to say hello, so I stopped to offer my congratulations on what was likely a lucrative venture.

This happened to be opening day. It had been two and a half years since Anhalt had gotten the call from global food-service provider SSP America inviting him to make tortas at the airport.

Anhalt and Bains were wound up. It had taken a long while to source ingredients, test recipes, and train staff, and they still had to arrive at the airport more than two hours early every day to get ready for service. They still had to go through security and take their shoes off just to get to the kitchen.

“The other day, I brought my knife,” said Anhalt. “I was going to cook. And I couldn’t get it into the airport. The airport is another planet.”

It’s not just the security. Opening a restaurant anywhere is a huge undertaking filled with unexpected challenges.

To start, San Cosme doesn’t directly employ its own people. Staffers work for SSP America, a company that, along with HMSHost and OTG, operates most of the food service at Pearson. Food for all the eateries is prepared in a massive kitchen, then carted to each location. So, while Anhalt and Bains can train staff, they can’t just pop in to the kitchen to taste a bubbling sauce or even schedule or promote staff members who show aptitude.

Then there is the sourcing of ingredients.

While Anhalt has final say over what is served by the business — which is linked to his name and reputation — his partners pushed for all the shortcuts you’d expect: pre-cracked eggs, jars of pickled jalapenos, refried beans, and frozen teleras (the soft, crusty bun he uses for sandwiches).

“The airport has their own ways, and I’ve had to say no to many things, including the bread. They flew frozen bread from California because they do teleras in one of the airports there, and the bread was horrible. They said that’s our option. And I said, I’m sorry, no, I want fresh bread.”

Most of the sandwiches have refried beans. The company wanted to buy and season tins of puréed black beans.

“I said no. We’re going to make refritos.”

They brought in jars of pickled jalapenos.

“I said, no, buy fresh jalapenos. I’m going to pickle them right now. I cannot serve a torta with this god-knows-what-brand from wherever.”

Many of these conversations and negotiations took place, not face to face, but between department heads in cities all over North America, further hindering the restaurateur’s ability to make decisions and execute them.

HMSHost is a global player that operates in 120 airports around the world. It’s responsible for the swanky new food hall I ate at in Newark and for that expensive and bad caprese sandwich (mealy tomatoes, rubbery cheese, syrupy balsamic). The company is owned by Autogrill, which is known for providing surprisingly good and affordable food at road stops in Italy. If you’ve driven through that country, you know that you can get an espresso, sfogliatelle, and sandwich fast and that they are good, fresh, and reasonably priced. So the same company that proves it’s possible to make travel food well — and in volume and speedily — on the highway can’t pull off the same feat at airports.

There are reasons why doing so is a challenge. In Kensington, San Cosme is open most days from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. It serves about 100 customers on a slow day and maybe 300 on a busy day. In the airport, the business opens at 5 a.m. and closes at midnight: during that time, it’ll serve between 400 and 500 customers. At that scale, there is a constant pressure to streamline production, to outsource instead of making fresh.

“There’s no morning coffee while the restaurant gets set for an 11 a.m. opening,” says Suzanne Merrell, senior manager of retail operations and performance for Pearson. “It’s 24/7. It never stops. There’s no downtime. There’s no breather.”

That’s a major hurdle for any restaurateur here — the need to plan every minute of every day, yet also be prepared to adjust based on unexpected flight patterns.

“It’s a whole new way of thinking,” says Merrell. “If we end up with massive flight delays and you have a flood of business, it can be impactful. So we have a flexible system. But it’s highly complex. That’s part of the learning with small operators as they come into the airport.”

Anhalt concedes that the airport people are brilliant at what they do, that they understand the mechanics of operating at this level. So it’s hard to know when to say yes to them, because they know the high-volume market, and when to say no to putting a breakfast burrito on the menu, because that’s not his core competency. Unless a restaurant partner insists on maintaining quality, it’s hard not to give in to the corporate way of doing things.

Merrell says that’s the goal; finding and fostering relationships with hospitality veterans who will push for their standards, rather than with those simply eager to license their brand: “I’m not interested in a name on a bulkhead. I’m interested in bringing the essence, the quality, everything.”

She doesn’t see Anhalt as a nuisance — indeed, she says, he was chosen for this partnership because he was the kind of restaurateur who would insist on the right bread, beans, and pickles: “Arturo is making sure that the sandwich is the same as their street-side location.”

The effort seems to be paying off. After listening to Anhalt’s woes for 20 minutes, my stomach had started grumbling: I wanted to try one of the sandwiches. The airport has told San Cosme that it needs to have pre-made food on display. So there were already a half-dozen sitting under heat lamps. Anhalt wanted to make me a fresh one. But then I wouldn’t have been able to find out how well they stand up under normal conditions.

I know the sandwich well enough to tell that the bun had started to dry out under the lamp. But other than that: The eggs were fluffy. The bacon was crisp. The salsa verde, spooned over at the last minute, didn’t sog the bun. The freshly pickled jalapenos make the torta. It was easily the best meal I’ve eaten in an airport. And for a reasonable price, too. Pearson policy is that any restaurant replicating the menu of a street location needs to match those prices.

But that was just day one. The challenge will be to keep it that good every day. And the challenge for the airport will be to present the variety of amazing food available in Toronto in what is effectively a high-security city state.

“There’s a lot more in terms of diversity and choice that we would love to do,” says Merrell, adding that the 13 Tim Hortons and 10 Starbucks are essential but don’t represent their vision. “We could keep building coffee shops and never cannibalize a dollar on any of them. But we can’t just deliver coffee. We need to have great food choices.”

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