Fresh Produce at the Airport? Eating on the Fly Just Got a Lot Less Grim

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A produce stand at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport’s Delta terminal. Photo courtesy of OTG

For most Americans, eating at airports “on the fly” means settling for a bite that is neither nutritious nor well priced. Luckily, the times they are a-changin’ thanks to the new wave of airport food.

Consider airport dining company OTG, which curates concessions in 11 airports across North America. In recent years, it’s sought to offer travelers the same food options they might find outside the terminals. A proponent of the “farm-to-terminal” mission, OTG works with local farms and vendors to offer options that go beyond the typical green banana, bland apple, or unripe orange.

In the Delta terminal at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Minneapolis and LaGuardia Airport in New York City, OTG operates fresh produce stands that carry fruit ranging from horned melons to heirloom cherry tomatoes. A nearby fountain has been installed so customers can wash their fruit on the spot.

“We hear from fellow travelers all of the time about what an unexpected and welcome find they are,” said Rick Blatstein, OTG’s chief executive officer. “To be able to get a ripe, delicious piece of fruit and wash it yourself at a fountain just next to the stand or have it freshly sliced by one of our crew members is a simple touch that can make the difference in a traveler’s day.”

A produce stand at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. Photo: Cassie Carothers

Another sign airport food is on the up and up? In 2013, JetBlue created a pop-up greenmarket at Terminal 5 of New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in partnership with local nonprofit GrowNYC. It featured New York state products, composting areas, and even a bike blender for people-powered smoothies. The market was a hit, and ultimately led to the opening of the store New York Minute, which sells foods produced in New York state, mostly from local farms.

“We want to expand the idea of fresh food,” explained Tamara Young, Jet Blue’s Manager of Corporate Communications. “We don’t want customers to have to compromise their diets and the foods they believe in just because they’re traveling.”

That’s also the case at Terminal 2 of San Francisco International Airport, where passengers don’t have to leave the airport to discover famous Bay Area food products. In 2005, SFO opted out of their concessions contract with a major company, instead opting to contract directly with local vendors. This switch led to an increase of 55 percent in sales.

One such vendor is Tastes on the Fly, which operates Napa Farms Market. There, travelers find offerings from local producers such as Cowgirl Creamery, Acme Bread, Equator Coffee, and Frog Hollow Farms. Another selling point? The chef, Tyler Florence, is a partner, and the menu includes a “Tyler Florence Fresh” section featuring organic roasted chicken and seasonal salads. For East Coasters, Tastes on the Fly runs a similar concept, Berkshire Farms Market, in Terminal B of Boston’s Logan International Airport. Produce is sourced directly from farms and producers in Western Massachusetts, like cured meats from New England Charcuterie in Waltham and desserts from Salem bakery Melita Fiore.

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Prepared salads from Napa Farms Market at San Francisco International Airport. Photo courtesy of Stage2 Marketing

Both Napa Farms Market and Berkshire Farms Market have exceeded sales expectations. According to Tastes on the Fly CEO Michael Levine, Napa Farms Market has grown 18 percent in sales volume every year since it opened in 2011. Berkshire Farms has raked in $3.7 million since it opened last year, far surpassing early projections of $2 million. Levine is not surprised by the success: “People are more interested in farm fresh products. The type of California consciousness that Alice Waters put into place … We take it to another level [by offering it in an airport setting].”

But one of the most ambitious airport food ventures is HMSHost, a leading concessionaire that partnered with the Chicago Department of Aviation in 2011 to create the world’s first airport aeroponic garden in Chicago’s O'Hare International Airport. The vertical garden yields 10 to 15 pounds of vegetables every week, all without the use of soil. The produce is utilized by many of O’Hare’s restaurants, including Torteras Frontera, a quick-service Mexican restaurant from Chef Rick Bayless that sources its produce exclusively from local farms. Located below the garden? A farmers market where passengers can buy fresh herbs and salads.

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The aeroponic garden at Chicago’s O'Hare International Airport. Photo: HMSHost

According to the Chicago Department of Aviation’s annual report for 2012-2013, sales increased sevenfold in that location of the terminal after the farmers market replaced a conventional kiosk that previously stood there.

While it does cost more to buy organic food — both in and out of airports — 
sales figures suggest that customers are willing to spend a few more dollars for better quality food. 

“I have seen that if you offer the best organic products, then people are happy to pay for it,” Tastes on The Fly CEO Michael Levine affirmed. Clearly, the proof is in the pudding — or in this case, the peaches and the plums.

More stories about dining on the fly:

How an Airport Beekeeping Program Is Giving People a Second Chance

The Next Culinary Hotspot? Newark Airport

7 Healthy, DIY Airplane Snacks