Thursday, July 29, 2010

Foodie Fight: New LAX Restaurants Face Political Hurdles

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the battles at LAX in regards to decent food.

Foodie Fight: New LAX Restaurants Face Political Hurdles

Everyone knows the food at LAX sucks.  I personally make sure to take a trip to Whole Foods the day before so I am well stocked before heading through security to the land of McDonalds, Starbucks, and Chilli’s Too’s.   And I’m not alone.  Food and beverage service at LAX has been a contentious issue for years.  In a recent J.D. Power survey of airport quality, passengers ranked LAX 19th out of the 20 biggest airports in the U.S., and gave its fast-food chains and other eateries two stars out of five.  Considering how much Angeleno’s pride themselves on being foodies this is completely and utterly embarrassing…
But hope is on the way, as long as the politics of it all just don’t get in the way. 
Change is (potentially) in the air, in April LAX management selected a team of local restaurateurs assembled by SSP America as its choice to provide food service at several airport terminals.   Among the cornucopia of dining options are local Santa Monica gems La Serenata de Garibaldi (authentic Mexican culinary), Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s Border Grill Taqueria (modern Mexican fare), and Groundwork Coffee (largest organic coffee roaster in Los Angeles and very first certified organic coffee roasters in southern California).
“This is a world class food city and we are really proud to be joining L.A. ’s culinary community in its commitment to help make LAX one of the world’s best airports,” said Pat Murray, Senior Vice President at SSP America, which oversees food and beverage services at more than 40 North American airports. “The airport management plans to spend nearly $1 billion upgrading and expanding its facilities in the coming years, and they understand that it’s crucial to upgrade the travelers’ dining experience as well.  We are extremely pleased that the airport management recognized the quality and strength of our proposal and recommended it for selection.”

Chef Susan Feniger, co-owner of the celebrated Border Grill Taqueria and Ciudad restaurants along with Chef Mary Sue Milliken noted, “being part of the top notch group of chefs and restaurateurs in the SSP Package proposal, we get to give everyone traveling through LAX a taste of the real and unique flavors of Los Angeles – if the City will let us.”

And there’s the “but” of the situation.  

Since 1965, most food service at the airport has been provided under a contract with HMS Host (along with Delaware North and the Hudson Group). In April, after a rigorous bidding and evaluation process, the Los Angeles World Airport (LAWA) management team ranked the SSP America proposal first and recommended that the Los Angeles Airport Commission approve a 10-year contract for food and beverage service in Terminals 4, 5, 7 and 8.  From the beginning the incumbents have lobbied hard to keep their piece of the pie, fighting tooth and nail and complaining to anyone who will listen that the bidding process was flawed (their objections were dismissed by the LA city attorney’s office).
Because Airport Commission Alan Rothenberg had a potential conflict of interest, he owns stock in a food company currently operating at the airport (HMS Host), which ranked fourth by LAWA, the final approval of the contract must come from the Board of Referred Powers, a committee of the Los Angeles City Council.  Both the City Attorney and the City Administrative Officer have recommended that the Board of Referred Powers approve airport management’s contract recommendations. HMS Host is appealing and asking that the bids be rejected (which along with Delaware North and the Hudson Group stand to lose six-figure contracts if city officials kick them to the curbside).  According to the LA Weekly, this switch doesn't seem to have removed the possibility of conflicts. Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who is a member of the board, received $40,000 in contributions from LAX concession companies and their lobbyists during her failed campaign for lieutenant governor.

Last Thursday chefs and owners from more than a dozen of the restaurants on SSP’s master list today hosted an ‘Eat In’ at the world famous Patina restaurant to preview their new airport cuisine and urge the Los Angeles City Board of Referred Powers to approve a proposal to serve their award-winning fare to millions of travelers at LAX. Joachim Splichal, chef and founder of the Patina Group owned Nick & Stef’s Steakhouse noted, “we’re ready to bring the very best food that Los Angeles has to offer to the airport.  We just want city officials to give us the chance.  As a chef and as an Angeleno, I’m really excited about the opportunity to serve our food at the airport.”  Fourteen of the restaurants from SSP proposed list participated in the event (including Santa Monica based Border Grill and Groundwork) prepared and served samples of their menus.  After the event, participants attended a scheduled hearing on the LAX food and beverage contract before the L.A. City Board of Referred Powers at 11 a.m. at City Hall. 
SSP, who purport the subtitle of the Food Travel Experts, is a large-scale operator of food and beverage brands in travel locations worldwide, with operations in more than 130 airports and 300 rail stations in 32 countries.  Other restaurants on SSP’s LAX roster include: Homeboy Industries (an inner-city group bakery that helps former gang members go straight), Spuntino (a new restaurant from Nancy Silverton of Michael’s, Spago, Mozza and La Brea Bakery fame), LAMILL Coffee (a trendy, high-concept coffeehouse where a cup of coffee is art, science and floor show), M Café de Chaya (contemporary Macrobiotic Cuisine), Market Café of the Patina Group (an upscale European market with a modern spin for takeaway customers), Geisha House (Ashton Kutcher’s Dolce Group sushi bar), Peets Coffee & Tea (coffee), Red Mango (frozen yogurt),  and Panda Express (SIGH, famed for their orange chicken).

“The airport is our culinary window to the world,” continues Susan Feniger, chef and owner of Border Grill Taqueria.  “The way people experience and perceive Los Angeles begins at LAX and food is a major part of that experience. 

The Board of Referred Powers has scheduled a hearing on the matter for August 5 at City Hall.      
Kat Thomas is a food writer, you can check out her musings at her blog the Edible Skinny (

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