Local food finds niche at Sky Harbor

March 18, 2013

One of the busier airports in the country is throwing conventional food wisdom out the window. You can still get a McDonald’s Big Mac or a Starbucks' Frappucino at Sky Harbor in Phoenix, but the airport is in the midst of a major upgrade that will bring local restaurants into a space that is typically reserved for mega-corporate chains.

coffee Sky Harbor Airport welcomed Valley-based Cartel Coffee Lab into Terminal 4 late last year. (Photo by Peter O'Dowd - KJZZ)

gluten-free Some of the restaurants offer healthier options, including gluten-free dishes at Sauce Pizza & Wine. (Photo by Peter O'Dowd - KJZZ)

The result is a strange sight — hipster baristas with scoop-neck shirts and perfect beards are slinging cappuccinos on the other side of airport security.

That’s where Jason Silberschlag has opened his latest iteration of the Cartel Coffee Lab.

Did he ever imagine doing business here?

“No, never. 100 percent no,” Silberschlag said. “We are beyond the small fish at this point.”

Yet, here he is a few months into opening his fifth location in Arizona. Silberschlag is taking a big risk. Renting 740 square feet of space on the Terminal 4 concourse costs more than 10 times what he pays for a cafe in town. 

“What is a harder pill to swallow is that we have quite a bit of debt for this location and previously until this we had been a debt-free company,” he said.

The debt adds up to nearly half a million dollars. It’s for the stainless steel counters, the sandwich cooler shrouded in steel, the menu boards -- everything that makes this cafe look like it belongs in the city, not in the airport.

Silberschlag is battling his nerves, and betting it will pay off. Because let’s face it, “this airport is like a little city,” he said.

In fact, 40 million people pass through Sky Harbor every year.

Cartel is one of about a dozen locally born businesses in Terminal 4 that opened in last year. Phase two just got started, so another dozen or so local brands will make their debut in 2013. They’ll sell cake (Tammie Coe). Chicken and waffles (Lola’s). Specialty pizza and carne asada tacos (take your pick).

This food will be from restaurants that -- until now -- only Phoenicians have really heard of.

Sky Harbor Spokeswoman Deborah Ostreicher put it this way:

“Not too long ago, I was in an airport that had one of those signs up that just said ’restaurant,’ and just said ‘bar.’ It made me think back to the time when I was a little kid, and that’s what you saw in an airport. You just saw ‘cocktails’ as a sign, not an actual concept.”

The idea is to give visitors a taste of Phoenix before they ever step foot in the city, Ostreicher said.

But doing this took some effort. To get small players like Cartel Coffee involved, HMSHost, the group that manages the first phase, helped arrange financing with loan guarantees for at least three tenants. They just couldn’t compete with the high cost of doing business at the airport otherwise.

So far, the renovations appear to be working. The lunch hour is humming along at the new Chelsea’s Kitchen – before a recent fire temporarily closed it down.

A few months ago, the space belonged to a Chili’s. 

“Chili’s was very popular,” said Derek Boettcher, of HMSHost.  “Chelsea’s is bringing in about 35 percent more revenue just in this location.”

Some new brands are doing even better.

Boettcher explained that customers are responding to a few things. First, what you pay for a salad at Chelsea’s original Phoenix location is what you’ll pay at the airport. It’s called “street pricing.”

Second, many of these new restaurants are healthier. Think gluten-free pizza and local vegetables.

“So much better. No comparison,” said frequent traveler Amy Riter, who just finished a plate of chicken mole tacos before a flight to Denver.

“This is almost nicer than the actual restaurant. It’s just a nice atmosphere; you don’t really feel like you’re at the airport here.”