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Concessions and Recreation
The Market on Elmwood, a new concept at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, emphasizes self-checkout.

Delaware North keeps airport dining sites aloft

Company, customers embrace technology to weather pandemic travel.

If you think 2020 has been tough, consider the lot of airport foodservice operators: In April, they faced empty concourses almost overnight. Even now that stay-at-home orders have ended, travel restrictions have eased and some brave travelers are game to get on the road, airports are averaging only about a third of the passengers they served a year ago.

Delaware North’s travel division, which runs foodservice and retail operations at more than two dozen airports, has taken a three-pronged approach to dealing with the many challenges of the  pandemic. The company dubbed it Safe Travels: Commitment to Care.

Not surprisingly, health and safety protocols have taken top priority, says James Obletz, president of the division. The measures, which have become the new norm, include ensuring social distancing for staff and guests, implementing PPE for frontline staff, erecting Plexiglas barriers and establishing enhanced cleaning/sanitation procedures. Staff also underwent training in the new protocols.

Next, Delaware North turned to customer expectations, which translated to touchless ordering and payment. Most airport locations now offer mobile ordering, and all point-of-sale locations can process mobile wallet transactions such as Apple Pay and Google Pay.

The last concern: matching capacity with expected demand. In April, the company shuttered about 80% of its operations; as of mid-November, that figure remained at about 60%, a reflection of flattened air travel. Some locations also cut back operating hours or menu choices, which allow them to meet demand with a smaller crew. About half of the staff who were furloughed last spring have been brought back as locations resume operations.

Airports expect foodservice to be available, even with anemic passenger numbers, but this year the pressure to stay open has lessened, a situation Obletz doesn’t expect to last. For Delaware North and other airport operators, that means some soul-searching. “How do you properly turn the lights on without losing money?” he says.

Last summer, the company partnered with Grab to roll out virtual kiosks at quick-serve restaurants in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Tampa International Airport. With the kiosks, passengers can use their mobile devices to scan a QR code from signage, pull up a digital menu, order and pay. This allows them to avoid queues and their orders are placed at a designated pickup location or, in some cases, delivered to gates.

Travelers have quickly warmed up to the virtual kiosks. “Adoption is probably better than we anticipated—about 30 to 40%,” Obletz says. More kiosks are being installed at additional airport locations.


Grab virtual kiosks, which allow passengers to avoid lines, have been installed at two airports and are on track for more.

A number of factors went into deciding what stayed on the menu, says Brian Sterner, vice president of F&B for the travel division. “Low traffic pushed us down the road of needing to do SKU and menu consolidation,” he says. “We looked at what the top sellers were pre-COVID, and scaled down to those popular items.”

That’s not necessarily a negative, he adds.

“Pre-COVID, we tried to be all things for all people,” Sterner says. “This allowed us to scale back to what it is folks are looking for, and hone our ability to do things really well.”

Many full-service airport restaurants operated by Delaware North have migrated from a server model to a streamlined food-running model, Sterner says. Guests are seated, pull up a menu via a QR code and order, then a runner delivers the order. Many guests opt for takeout, which gives them the freedom to dine in a more remote area instead of a restaurant setting.

Delaware North has also opened some new stores this year, including the Market on Elmwood at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. The concept offers grab-and-go salads and locally themed sandwiches prepared throughout the day. Snacks, local candies and packaged drinks are also sold. Three self-checkout POS stations and a single cashier station help ensure contactless payment and social distancing.

Some of Delaware North’s airport adaptations will likely outlast the pandemic, Obletz says. The shift to cashless operations has been a welcome development, for example. “We as an industry have been trying to go this way for years and met with hesitation. From an operational perspective, there are enormous advantages…and I don’t think we’ve lost any business because of it,” he says. Mobile ordering technology is also here to stay, as it’s seen as a win-win for guests and operational efficiency.

When air travel will bounce back is still anyone’s guess, but Obletz says he has seen hopeful signs. Aggressive pricing by some airlines is fueling demand, and the proliferation of remote work and school is freeing up more leisure travelers to get on the road during times when they would normally be tethered to home.

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