The Food Network is getting into the restaurant business in a location not always associated with good food: An airport.
The channel has opened its first Food Network Kitchen at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in South Florida in the JetBlue terminal.
"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.
The Food Network Kitchen is the only eatery serving hot food at the JetBlue concourse. But it's the brand that gets attention from travelers as much as the lack of alternatives.
"I walked by and I said 'Oh wow, look at that. Food Network restaurant.' So I came in," said Richard Wierzbicki of Austin, Texas. "And I would look for it again because I thought the sandwich was really good."
Since opening Nov. 8, the Food Network Kitchen has averaged 1,500 customers a day.
"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."
There are no waiters, so customers sit at tables after ordering at the counter or they can get takeout food, either made to order or readymade items like sandwiches and salads.
While the recipes are developed and branded by the Food Network, the offerings are not named for Food Network personalities, shows or 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 such as 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 entwine, the Food Network's wine brand, to locally-inspired cocktails like Lansky's Run, named for the Prohibition-era gangster Meyer Lansky.
The design of the restaurant resembles the cable network's test kitchen: a butcher block bar counter, subway tiling, stainless steel surfaces and pots and pans hanging in a row — only here, they hang behind a cash register.
The network's logo is plastered on everything from to-go boxes to brown paper bags filled with jelly beans and chocolate-covered pretzels. Most of the TVs are tuned to the Food Network, though some show sports or news. There are also some fun facts on display: A poster near the cash register details local ingredients used in the meals, while paper placemats explain how to filet a fish and describe different cuts of beef.
"We really wanted to bring our culinary expertise to the forefront and bring the brand to life," Food Network's Kuharsky said. "I think people are going to be drawn to the brand, but it also comes down to taste."
But while the network has already put its name on consumer products like frying pans and candles, along with its concession stand and stadium food, serving 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."
The Food Network and Delaware North Companies plan to open more outlets in the spring at the busy JetBlue terminal. Another Food Network Kitchen is scheduled to open at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport by the end of 2013.