Airport gets tougher on food-price premiums

A novice wouldn't notice.

But Patrick Anderson, road warrior and regular at Carrabba's Italian Grill, got steamed when he saw the bill for his chicken marsala at the chain's new restaurant at Tampa International Airport.

Three bucks extra for his house salad — the same salad that comes free with the entree at a Carrabba's a few miles away.

Anderson knew something a lot of travelers don't: Tampa International, like many airports, limits how much vendors can jack up prices over what they charge elsewhere.

He suspected the airport Carrabba's was trying to avoid the rule by charging for the salad.

"It's not a big amount of money," says Anderson, a software salesman from South Tampa. "It's the principle: Don't say you're adhering to something when you're not."

Restaurant owner HMSHost told the St. Petersburg Times that the new charge wasn't an increase over the off-airport price, but an "unbundling" of salad from the entree order.

The airport disagreed.

So on Tuesday, HMSHost decided to eliminate the charge for salad and soup when ordered with entrees. It hopes to make the change by the weekend if the restaurant's menus can be reprinted in time.

"We think it's a good thing to rebundle, so customers don't notice the difference between the street-side Carrabba's and the Tampa International Airport location," said spokeswoman Susan Goyette.

Airport shops once were notorious for selling hot dogs and sodas for ballpark prices.

But over the past decade or so, airports nationwide have leaned on restaurants and retailers to charge close to what people pay in their neighborhoods, a trend called "street pricing."

Tampa International used to require that vendors charge prices "comparable" to local competitors'. A year ago, officials went to a tighter standard: a maximum of 10 percent above what they or similar businesses charge off the airport.

That margin helps offset the higher cost of doing business at the airport, from rent and revenue-sharing with the airport to employee parking and background checks for security.

Airport officials still are working with retailers to set street prices on hundreds of items. While fast-food vendors must stay within 10 percent of off-airport prices on individual items like burgers and sodas, that rule doesn't apply to promotions or discounted combo meals.

Carrabba's awarded HMSHost its first franchise in an airport. The companies wanted to charge separately for salads because customers might not have time for more than an entree, Goyette says. Since Carrabba's opened at Tampa International three weeks ago, only 35 percent of diners ordered salad with their entree.

But Anderson says Carrabba's already charged 50 cents more for his $17 chicken marsala at the airport than at its N Dale Mabry Highway location. Add the $3 salad and the total bill was 21 percent higher.

"This is a nice lesson to share with my kids," said Anderson, who e-mailed Carrabba's, HMSHost and the Times last week. "When something is wrong or misrepresented, you should not be afraid to stand up for what you believe in."

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

Airport vs. Street Prices

Carrabba's chicken marsala

$17 Tampa International (house salad $3 extra)

$16.50 700 N. Dale Mabry Hwy., Tampa (house salad included)

Starbucks caffe latte (medium)

$3.65 Tampa International

$3.35 1600 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa

Burger King Whopper meal

$5.79 Tampa International

$4.60 2965 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa

Airport gets tougher on food-price premiums 12/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 18, 2008 4:46pm]

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