Monday, January 28, 2013

Lehigh Valley International (KABE), Allentown, Pennsylvania: New restaurants coming to airport

Cash-poor and in need of some good news, Lehigh Valley International Airport operators are turning to a new strategy to appeal to passengers: their stomachs. 

OK, a really good hoagie or a perfectly mixed latte isn't going to make anyone buy a plane ticket, but airport officials are hoping to attract at least some people who aren't scheduled for a flight.

LVIA has hired a San Diego company to take over three restaurants and a newsstand in hopes of upgrading the offerings and increasing the airport's take. First Class Concessions has a deal to renovate and run the airport's retail space for the next decade.

"This will enhance the concessions and we think that will drive up usage," said airport Executive Director Charles Everett Jr. "We believe the quality will be such that it will attract people who are not using the airport for travel that day."
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First Class will take over when the leases for the existing shops — Subway, the Hudson News and two Lehigh Valley Cafés — run out June 30.

The deal guarantees the airport $168,000 in rent payments a year, compared with the $93,000 it gets now, or a percentage of the gross sales, whichever is higher. Perhaps the bigger benefit will be an upgrade in food at the restaurants, Everett said.

Behind the security in the departures area will be Java Joint, Chew Street Hoagies and the PA Pub.

Java Joint will be an upscale coffee shop offering a Starbucks-type menu with everything from regular coffee to chai tea to raspberry mocha. Chew Street Hoagies will have breakfast burritos, Philly cheesesteaks and salads. The PA Pub is to have soups, salads, $7-$10 dollar burger meals and favorites such as chicken wings, Cuban and bratwurst sandwiches, along with wines and beers from local wineries and breweries, First Class President Tasneem Vakharia said.

Vakharia said the company will take over the retail operations by July 1, spend about $500,000 to renovate them and have the new places fully open by Thanksgiving. The shops will remain open during construction and Vakharia said First Class will attempt to hire any current employees who want to keep their job at the airport.

Ellie Unangst, a 12-year airport worker at the Lehigh Valley Café, is wishing Vakharia luck because she's afraid she'll need it.

"Traffic is so slow most days that I don't have enough sales to pay my salary," said Unangst of North Whitehall Township. "If it wasn't for the employees I'd have almost no sales."

The Spirit of the Lehigh Valley newsstand and gift shop will be in the departure area, offering items such as Just Born Candies and sweatshirts from local colleges.

"We've done a lot of research to include Lehigh Valley favorite items so that these shops have an appeal to local people," Vakharia said. "We think there's a lot of potential there. We believe we can bring people in who aren't flying. We're excited."

Before the security post, and open to the general public, will be an overhauled Lehigh Valley Café on the second level, which will offer many of the food items offered at the three other restaurants. That space is currently vacant.

First Class was chosen over six other bidders, in part because of its experience operating the same concept in six other airports including Will Rogers World Airport, Oklahoma City; Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport; and Fort Wayne International Airport. It will be the first time that LVIA will have a single operator running all of its retail space.

"They've found a real niche serving airports of our size," said Sherri McTavish, the airport's director of administration and finance. "If we had a larger passenger base we might have broken it up between several vendors, but this seems to make sense for us."

The PA Pub is even envisioned as a restaurant that could cater private functions at the airport.

No one is suggesting a change in restaurants is going to solve all the airport's recent problems, but officials say it's part of a larger plan to chip away at its financial woes. A difficult travel economy, high fuel prices and the losses of four airlines in the past two years pushed 2012 passenger traffic at the airport to its lowest level since 1987.

Earlier this month, Everett cut services such as the airport shuttle and eliminated a dozen jobs to balance the 2013 budget.

In the meantime, the airport is struggling to pay off the remaining $14 million of a $26 million court judgment against it for seizing a developer's property in the early 1990s.

So any new revenue or airport operation upgrade is welcome news.

"We're hoping we can grow sales," McTavish said. "Even in this declining environment."


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