Nigiri at PHL Airport's Sky Asian Bistro

How far from the airport is Geno’s Steaks? Do I have time to get there on my layover?

Commonly googled questions, but ones that will be moot this summer. In July, a Geno’s Steaks will open in the B/C Connector at Philly International Airport.

The cheesesteak icon is one of several new operators slated to join the thriving indoor retail environment at PHL. Others openings on the docket for this year or early next include Bar Symon (from Cleveland celeb chef Michael Symon, in Terminal D), high-end food market Balducci’s (Terminal C), Mo’ Burger (D), Victoria’s Secret (B/C) and two additional outposts of Philly roastery La Colombe, which will be co-branded with Manayunk bakery/cafe Le Bus — an impromptu partnership developed for a stand in Terminal F that proved fruitful enough to replicate.

“Local concepts are really important for airport concessions,” said PHL CEO Rochelle “Chellie” Cameron, “because you want people to get a sense of place, but you also want people to be able to go to a national brand where they already feel comfortable.”

When Cameron spoke to an audience of around 250 businesspeople at a “leasing outreach” on Thursday morning, both local and national companies were well represented. They were there to check out what it would take to vie for one of 26 new opportunities to open at PHL — spots that range from a tiny, 175-square-foot grab-and-go kiosk to 3,000-square-foot bar and restaurant spaces.

Would one of the larger spots work for a brewpub, so visitors could get a taste of Philly’s famous beer scene on their way through? Probably not, said Tom Kehoe, who attended the meeting with Yards Brewing Company partner Trevor Prichett — not enough square footage — but a replica of the Yards tasting room on Delaware Avenue might work well.

“I don’t see opening a Yards at the airport as much of a money maker,” Kehoe said. “Really it would be good marketing, to get our name out there. And it would help Philadelphia’s reputation to have great beer at the airport.”

Of the 31 million people who make their way through the concourses each year, around 45 percent are on connecting flights with an average layover of 1-2 hours, according to Cameron. The other 55 percent are either departing or arriving from Philly — but even those people arrive hours early and add to what’s basically a captive audience for retailers.

Airport travelers provide a friendly captive audience for retailers
Airport travelers provide a friendly captive audience for retailers Credit: Danya Henninger

Although overall air traffic at PHL has declined since the turn of the millennium, with takeoffs and landings down 23 percent, the number of travelers has stayed relatively level — it dropped just 3 percent in the same period. And a figure called “sales per enplanement” is up — each ticket holder spent an average of $12.91 last year, contributing to a total revenue of $203 million.

“Once you open the doors [at the airport], there’s constant business,” said Rob Wasserman. “As long as you can execute your operation, the business is yours.” The owner of Rouge on Rittenhouse Square, Wasserman is also a partner in a new fast-casual chain called Snap Custom Pizza (there’s one on 15th and Sansom), which he sees as a perfect fit for PHL.

“You have to jump through a lot of hoops — security, sourcing, things like that — but the opportunity outweighs all that. Besides, Philadelphia isn’t the easiest place to operate a business anyway.”

In addition to all the regular licensing and inspection that goes with opening a restaurant, there are several challenges unique to running an airport biz.

Getting deliveries is one. “It’s not like UPS can just pull up outside and unload,” MarketPlace PHL VP of development Mike DiCosola told the crowd of potential operators. “Every single package has to go through security screening.”

People also have to be screened. “Airports are maybe the only environment where a dishwasher has to go through a federal background check,” DiCosola said.

Then there’s the hours. Lease agreements mandate that food and beverage concessions open 45 minutes before the first flight and stay open until 30 minutes after the last flight — seven days a week. “There’s no snow days here. As long as the airlines are in the game, we’re in the game. Christmas here is just another day.”

At PHL, new food is always arriving soon
At PHL, new food is always arriving soon Credit: Danya Henninger

Ryan Berley, co-owner of nostalgic Old City ice cream shop Franklin Fountain, was at the meeting, and saw an upside to the always-on situation.

“It’s not like there’s seasons at the airport,” he said, pointing out that his sales vary greatly according to weather. Inside the concourse? Who cares if it’s snowing if a great cone will make a cranky kid happy.

Another potential new indulgence for PHL-bound kids — and adults — is Krispy Kreme. Franchisee Keith Morgan, who brought the brand back to the area in 2011, recently closed a store in Northeast Philly because “it wasn’t the right location.” He has four other shops in the surrounding region, but is very interested in having a presence within city limits, and sees the airport as a great option.

After Thursday’s meeting, the next step for potential operators is to send an email indicating their interest. Altogether, PHL Airport is looking to bring on five new restaurant/bar concepts, eight quick-service spots, four grab-and-go places, two coffee shops, one snack location and six specialty retailers. MarketPlace, which runs the airport concessions (much like Aramark runs them in sports stadiums), has set a goal of having all leases signed by mid-October of this year. Then build-out will happen, leading to target launch dates between August and December 2017.

“Airports are a booming business,” said Snap Custom Pizza’s Wasserman. “If you’re in the sweet spot, I don’t see much of a downside.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...