The Food Network has gotten into the restaurant business in a location not always associated with good food: an airport.
The first Food Network Kitchen, which opened a month ago at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, is the first of many planned outlets. Another is scheduled to open at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport by the end of 2013.
"The dynamic of food and travel has changed," said Sergei Kuharsky, general manager of Food Network's new business enterprises. "You used to never go in and think about eating at an airport."
Now, with passengers arriving early to get through security and limited options for in-flight food, there's a market for airport dining.
"We are responding to that opportunity," Kuharsky said.
"Airport locations are very busy, but this one especially," said Jean-Pierre Turgot, general manager for Delaware North Companies Travel Hospitality Services, which partnered with the Food Network to provide chef-inspired meals at the airport and is also a partner in Food Network-branded food sold at concession stands and stadiums. "It's the highest revenue producer at the airport."
Passengers step up to a counter for made-to-order or ready made items like sandwiches and salads.
While the recipes are developed and branded by the Food Network, they don't give a nod to its celebrity chefs. Instead, the menu promises organic and sustainable ingredients and offers dishes with connections to local ingredients and regional culture, such as a Florida shrimp po'boy ($13) and a salmon burger with Key lime mayo ($14).
South Florida's Latin culture is reflected in items like the Cuban breakfast burrito ($8) and a black beans and rice burger with "mojo mayo" ($12). Also on the menu: fried pickles with key lime mayo ($6); sweet potato fries with Key lime tartar sauce ($5); and a Cuban sandwich ($12) with cafe con leche mayo pressed on a ciabatta roll.
Wait times can back up when flights arrive and the airport gets busy, so it's best to arrive early if you plan to sit down, as Liz Lamoureux did before flying back home to San Antonio, Texas.
"On our way here, I was saying we wanted to get here early to sit down for a drink," she said as she nibbled on edamame and sipped on the house pinot grigio.
Beverages range from espresso to wine to locally inspired cocktails like Lansky's Run, named for the Prohibition-era gangster Meyer Lansky.
The network has already put its name on consumer products like frying pans and candles, along with concession stand and stadium food, but serving high-quality food at an airport restaurant presents different challenges.
"Branding on the front lines has the most exposure and is different than putting your name on a logo," said Chris Tripoli, president of A'la Carte Foodservice Consulting Group, who has worked on food concepts in airports across the country. "Now that you have exposed yourself to the end user, your reputation, that Food Network brand, is going to be judged on the temperature of the green beans that day or by every bite of the sandwich."
Tripoli added that Food Network staffers on the restaurant's front lines "know their brand is only going to be as good as their last meal."