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Carrabba's offers quick bite before your TIA flight

TAMPA — Airport restaurants face two big obstacles to success: time and space.

They've got to serve up dishes quickly for travelers watching the clock. And in typically tight airport real estate, they must squeeze in a kitchen and dining room large enough to feed a bustling rush-hour crowd.

So, Steve Johnson of HMSHost is proud to point out that the new Carrabba's Italian Grill at Tampa International is almost indistinguishable from the chain's other restaurants.

"It's just a tiny bit smaller," says Johnson, a senior vice president for the airport concessions giant that owns the restaurant. "The menu's not much different. It's nice to come in and not feel like you're in an airport."

Opened quietly two weeks ago, the restaurant is the first airport location for Carrabba's, part of Tampa-based OSI Restaurant Partners. It's also the brand's first franchise after opening 237 company owned and operated locations.

The airport's master concessions operator, HMSHost spent $3-million and six months renovating the former Wharf Grille & Brewhouse into Carrabba's. The work was part of a $12-million makeover of restaurants and shops at Tampa International.

Increased security since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted travelers to arrive earlier to catch flights. That leaves more time to shop or grab a bite. Airports have aggressively added more upscale, brand-name restaurants and retailers to help passengers spend their money.

But airports can be tough places to do business. Often, restaurant chains cut out menu items that take too long to cook. Inadequate space for stoves, ovens and preparation tables limits how much food cooks produce and how many customers the restaurant can serve.

HMSHost moved out of adjoining offices and tore down walls to give Carrabba's a larger kitchen. That was critical because the chain insists on making soups, salads and sauces from scratch on site, said Carrabba's president Steve Shlemon.

Only a handful of regular menu dishes were scratched for time: steamed mussels and crab cakes that couldn't make the 5-minute appetizer deadline and lobster ravioli that can take more than 10 minutes to prepare.

Servers ask if customers are catching a flight and how long before it leaves. They direct the time-challenged to faster choices such as pasta. "We can get them in and out in 20 minutes," says general manager Dan Scavelli, who previously ran Carrabba's in Clearwater.

Entrees range from $23 for Filet Fiorentina to $17 for Chicken Marsala, with pizzas and sandwiches under $10. Prices can be up to 10 percent higher than at off-airport locations, under HMSHost's contract with Tampa International.

Part of the company's strategy behind attracting Carrabba's was to take pressure off a T.G.I. Friday's just a few steps away, Johnson said. That Friday's is the country's highest-volume airport restaurant, with $8.5-million in annual sales, said Elie Maalouf, HMSHost's chief executive. His company also owns that restaurant, along with a local partner.

"We need to give it a run for its money," he said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptmes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Carrabba's offers quick bite before your TIA flight 12/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2008 2:20pm]

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