TAMPA — Tampa International Airport is getting a big helping of local flavor, debuting a number of new restaurant concepts both before and after security checkpoints.
The changes are designed to "bring Tampa into the airport," airport CEO Joe Lopano said at a grand opening event on Wednesday, highlighting new tenants based on uniquely Tampa spots: a Mise en Place cafe called First Flight, a Columbia Restaurant Cafe and Cigar City Brewing (the only spot in the country brewing right in an airport).
"This August, the eyes of the world will be watching us," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, introduced as Tampa's "foodie mayor." And a "traveler's experience starts when they get off the plane."
Forty percent of the airport's concessions have been under renovation in the past six months, but according to director of airport concessions Bhavesh Patel, "the Republican National Convention was not a driver for this renovation. Our mission was improving customer service and focusing on giving the airport a sense of place."
The changes reflect an elegant collaboration between the airport authority and HMSHost Corp., which has held the contract on concessions at the airport for 40 years. HMS president and CEO Tom Fricke sees Tampa's new changes as a reflection of national change.
"The industry is evolving and now airport authorities love to highlight local concepting. The trend now is away from McDonald's and the familiar. In O'Hare now we have Rick Bayless' Tortas Frontera."
If, as Patel claims, "the airport is an extension of the community's living room," Columbia owner Richard Gonzmart is sitting in the easy chair.
His nephew, Casey Gonzmart Jr., will run the new Columbia Restaurant Cafe on Concourse E, but the senior Gonzmart was on hand to explain why an airport restaurant has been a dream for the past 17 years: The Wright Brothers' first flight coincides with the debut of Tampa's oldest restaurant in 1903. This airport Columbia features a similar color scheme to other Columbia locations, along with Gonzmart family photos and a hard-to-beat Cuban sandwich.
Anthony Chick, corporate chef for Green Iguana, was quick to point out the fellow Ybor City icon's accolades as winner of the recent Burger Showdown in Tampa. Taking the place of a tequila-theme bar on Concourse A, the new Green Iguana features build-your-own classic American burgers as well as some items, such as Ybor City mojo nachos, that have yet to find their way into other Green Iguana locations.
At the new Cigar City Brewing on Concourse C, brewer Ben Romano has designed an airport-specific beer called the Tony Jannus IPA, with travelers in mind: very aromatic but not bitter, relatively low in alcohol with a signature touch of cedar on the finish.
On Wednesday, before her flight home to Buffalo, vacationer Nancy Lesswing sampled the special brew, pronouncing it "fabulous, light bodied and not heavy; it's a good traveling beer."
Meanwhile, at the adjacent Shula's Bar and Grill and Shula Burger, coach and restaurateur Don Shula held court, wearing his Perfect Season ring.
Shula's concepts have already expanded to the airports in Miami and Fort Myers. "Tampa is a dynamic city, especially with what's happening in the near future," Shula said. "In our design, we've included iconic photos of Tampa and St. Petersburg and the harbor."
In what many would describe as the marquee spot in the airport, the center of the before-security main terminal, Mise en Place's First Flight has just opened. It's a place for a European-style bite on the go, as Maryann Ferenc describes it. Its connection to mothership Mise en Place is the intelligent and unique wine list. About the airport changes, Ferenc says this concession revamping is "definitional for the area, crossing both sides of the bay, with a tremendous and long-lasting economic impact."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.
Note: This story was changed to reflect the following correction: The manager of the new Columbia Restaurant Cafe at Tampa International Airport is Casey Gonzmart Jr. His name was incorrect in a story Thursday.