When Delta announced on Tuesday that it was “redefining” dining in the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport with 12 new restaurants, all attached to beloved names in Minnesota chefdom, there was both excitement (“Real food at the airport!”) and skepticism (“Real food at the airport? Yeah, right.”)
Both, as it turns out, are a little premature. Although Delta announced the names of the participating chefs and the management company, it won’t be able to sign an agreement until the Metropolitan Airports Commission signs off on the deal, according to Delta spokesperson Leslie Parker.
While Delta holds the lease on Concourse G in the Lindbergh Terminal until the end of 2020, its rights to the concessions on the concourse end December 31, 2015. At that time the rights revert to the MAC. In order to sign a long-term lease — as anyone making tens of millions of dollars in improvements would want — the MAC needs to be in on the deal.
The commissioners will meet in June to discuss the proposal and vote. MAC spokesperson Patrick Hogan says of the new Concourse G dining plan, “It’s an exciting proposal and we’ve been impressed by what we’ve seen… but it will come down to whether the dollars make sense.”
If the dollars do indeed make sense for the MAC and all goes according to plan, in January 2012, New York–based OTG Management will begin opening the dozen new restaurants along Concourse G one at a time, although the order has not been determined yet.
Choosing OTG over the incumbent, HMSHost, represents a significant change. HMS, which operates in more than 100 airports around the world, holds most of the concessions at MSP, even contracting to operate some of the non-chain restaurants like Ike’s and French Meadow.
OTG, on the other hand, operates in just nine airports — and in some of them just a Dunkin’ Donuts or two. But at the JFK JetBlue terminal, OTG has created what Food & Wine magazine has called “an unrivaled culinary monopoly on airport restaurants.” Then, the magazine notes, “LaGuardia’s Delta Terminal may soon be giving JFK’s JetBlue Terminal some healthy competition for top airport dining.” Surprise: Those restaurants, too, were created by OTG.
The modus operandi in New York is similar to what OTG is using at MSP: Get well-known chefs to create concepts, menus, and recipes and provide a little training and quality control over the course of the coming year. OTG owns, manages, and staffs the restaurants.
That’s something Chef Lenny Russo of St. Paul’s Heartland wants to make very clear: When (and if) the Mill City Tavern — the restaurant attached to his name in the proposal — opens in Concourse G, it will not be his restaurant. He is serving as a consultant. His name’s not on it, and it is not attached to the Heartland brand.
“If [customers] go in there expecting to see Lenny Russo, Russell Klein, Doug Flicker standing on the line, then they’re fooling themselves. That’s not what [OTG] contracted us for,” Klein says. “Is it going to be what you’re going to get at Meritage or at Heartland or at Tanpopo? No, but it’s going to be close.”
Russo says that he will provide OTG with four seasonal menus, recipes, a week of on-site training, and quality control — meaning he’ll eat a couple of meals a month in the restaurant and provide feedback to the chef there. He has also turned over his list of local farmers and purveyors to OTG and is encouraged that the management company has already met with some local farmers.
There’s something else Russo wants to make clear: He thinks this is a great idea.
“If Minneapolis-St. Paul wants to remain a world-class destination then we need a world-class airport and we need world-class restaurants,” he says. “This is what we do as chefs. We’ve dedicated ourselves to bringing quality food to people. Here’s an opportunity to bring quality food to many thousands more than come to my restaurant.”
When OTG first approached Russo a couple of months ago and asked if he could reinterpret his Heartland concept at the airport, he says, “It only took me about 20 minutes to know I was interested in getting involved.” He says he did his homework, calling other OTG consultants and touring their restaurants in LaGuardia and JFK.
“I walked through their kitchens and they’re small. But they’re making their stock from scratch — and they pay people well,” he says.
He also helped put OTG in touch with some other local chefs. When he told Doug Flicker of Piccolo that he was going to be consulting on a new airport restaurant, and he thought Flicker should do so, too, the first thing Flicker said was, “But, man, it’s at the airport!” Flicker, too, has signed on as a consultant.
“All of us are very cautious,” Russo says. “We’re all approached multiple times a year for consulting and 99 out of 100 times, we turn them down. The fact that they were able to get so many great chefs on board speaks volumes on the quality.”
Other chefs involved in Concourse G
Lenny Russo of Heartland: Mill City Tavern, focusing on artisan purveyors
Russell Klein of Meritage: Mimosa, a Provencal-style raw bar and brasserie
Erick Harcey of Victory 44: Minnesota Beer Hall, a classic pub with 48 tap beers, and Custom Burger, with a refined fast food menu
Andrew Zimmern of the Food Network: Minni Bar, globally inspired sandwiches
Scott Nelson of Matt’s Bar: Twinburger, serving Jucy Lucys
Koshiki Yonemura of Tanpopo: Shoyu, modern Japanese and house-made noodles
Ann Kim of Pizzeria Lola: Vero, serving individual pizzas
Doug Flicker of Piccolo: Volante, modern Italian
Michelle Gayer of Salty Tart: Specialty sandwiches on Rustica bread, to be served in OTG’s Cibo Express markets
Bill Waddington of TeaSource will select teas for World Bean
Dogwood Coffee will roast beans for World Bean