News that überchef Gordon Ramsay has broken cover and left his chic, urban habitat to take restaurant space in Heathrow's new £4.3b Terminal 5 is surely the ultimate proof that airport catering is raising its game.
In addition, other first-time airport signings by a number of fledgling London-based brands such as Apostrophe, Itsu and the niche Italian pasticceria Amato seal the departure of the tired old foodcourt. BAA has already ejected them from Heathrow's Terminal 3 and Edinburgh airport to make way for stand-alone brands.
And further signings by recent converts to airport sites, such as Eat, Giraffe and Lovejuice, hint at the erosion of brands owned by former Compass subsidiary SSP and the Restaurant Group, which traditionally operate most airport concessions.
BAA's aim, of course, is to give today's discerning traveller what they want - original, freshly prepared food and a slice of the high street to boot. Certainly, as regular Caterer readers - not to mention regular travellers - will have noted, the trend to bring in high-street brands such as Yo! Sushi, Est Est Est and gastropub Geronimo Inns has been steadily gathering pace in other terminals (Caterer, 3 November 2005, page 48).
The downside until now has been that these outlets have been shoehorned into existing terminals. Terminal 5 (T5), however, has presented the perfect opportunity to rethink the F&B offer from scratch, so when it opens in March 2008 it will represent the evolution of airport catering in high-spec surroundings.
"We're using Terminal 5 and the opportunity it has given us to rethink the whole passenger experience, as a trailblazer for all our planned development projects across all of our airports," says BAA Retail managing director Colin Hargrave.
As healthy eating has become a top trend, BAA has hand-picked brands that offer rehydrating, freshly prepared menus and replaced fast food with grab-and-go. Freya King, acting head of category, F&B, at BAA Retail, explains: "We really wanted to tap into the wellbeing and health trend with low-fat but fresh ingredients."
In signing up operators, King purposely targeted trendy London-based high-street brands, such as Giraffe, Amato, Itsu and Apostrophe. "We are the gateway to London and the UK, so this is important," says King. "The press is saying how good the food offer in the UK is, so we need to reflect that in the airport."
To get the right mix, some existing operators have been asked to evolve their offer - the Restaurant Group has devised V Bar, for instance - other sites have been put out to tender, and the smaller operators have been approached directly - Amato, for example, which has only one other store, in London's Soho.
The team has also been able to work with operators to tailor-make their airport offer and adapt to strict airport rules on health and safety. Giraffe has been able to overcome rigid restrictions on open flames and retain its stir-fry dishes by researching hobs that mimic gas flames. Other operators have used new technology to include contemporary and healthier cooking methods, such as steam-heating food. Most of the operators are also being encouraged to bake their own bread on site.
Besides health, size matters, too - T5 is predicted to handle 30 million passengers a year, taking Heathrow's capacity up to 90 million. Claire Cooper, Terminal 5 product director, BAA Retail, explains that more space has been allocated to F&B outlets than usual. The smallest site is the 56sq m Lovejuice, the largest is Gordon Ramsay's, at 700sq m.
The state-of-the-art terminal has been designed to be stress-free, so the extra space has allowed the team to incorporate peaceful spaces within the F&B outlets. Caffè Nero, for instance, will take 325sq m, which is larger than most airport coffee shops. This not only anticipates the expected volume of customers, but gives them a more relaxing experience away from the maelstrom of the airport environment. There will also be a children's area and an internet section.
The location of the restaurants and bars has also been carefully planned. To cut the hassle of passengers struggling to a far-flung departure gate, for instance, the planes will pull up on both sides of the terminal. Many F&B outlets will be sited near by with views of take-offs and landings. The idea is that you can sit and have a coffee or a meal and then stroll on board - well, in theory at least.
The ultimate aim is to make the retail and F&B element so compelling that passengers are happy to follow security procedures and check in early. Statistics show that once passengers reach the departure lounge they face an average one hour and 20 minutes' wait before boarding a plane - assuming there are no delays - which is plenty of time to shop, eat and drink.
"When we started, our ambition was to take F&B to the next level. This is bespoke for Terminal 5. It involves all types of offer and service style to meet the needs of every type of passenger," says King.
She has been working on the catering at T5 for three years and has studied the research conducted through BAA's quarterly focus groups and regular gate room interviews to accommodate what passengers want.
The passenger profile at Terminal 5 will be 92% ABC1 customers, with some 64% expected to be leisure passengers and 36% business. About 70-75% will be travelling alone.
"The fact that so many people travel alone is important when you look at F&B and design," says King. "You have got to make customers feel comfortable and build in flexibility so a big group doesn't disrupt individuals."
However, with few exceptions, the new high-street operators will have to address the unfamiliar problem of dawn-to-late-night dining and the fact that 50% of trade is done between 5am and 10am. For instance, when Yo! Sushi launched at Gatwick North a few years ago, it had to come up with a breakfast offer - arguably not easy when your menu is mostly raw fish. Itsu faces the same challenge.
The complex nature of operating in airports means that experienced operator the Restaurant Group will not only run its own brands - apart from V Bar these are unconfirmed - but also has deals to run some of the outlets for the smaller independents, such as Giraffe and Amato.
Other challenges include staff wages, which can soar as a result of the long and unsocial trading times. Add to that the administration headaches of transporting staff, plus new recruits having to undergo strict security checks. There are also storage and supply issues.
Regarding price points, King is emphatic: "There is a perception that airports are more expensive, but all operators are contracted to benchmark against the high street."
As elsewhere, BAA concession contracts are turnover-based, with the operators paying a percentage of sales. The length of the agreement on the concession varies from two to seven years depending on, for instance, whether the operator has had to invest in an expensive kitchen fit-out.
The rewards, however, should be excellent. F&B outlets in BAA terminals trade at capacity 17 hours a day and average dwell time tends to be 30-45 minutes.
BAA won't discuss figures, but Hargrave has said in the past that the most successful operations are seeing takings of up to three or four times higher per sq m than on the high street - and getting international exposure.
"It's a great opportunity for mid-sized chains looking for international expansion," confirms King. "Like retailers, restaurants can use airports as a window on the world."
Some brands that have landed at Terminal 5
Landside, the juice bar will be bright red and boldly designed. It has a strong presence in shopping centres and has been in airports since it opened in Stansted in 2003. It's also in Gatwick and is now in talks with Manchester airport. At T5 it is working to develop a fresh, healthy, savoury food offer called Lovebites to attract a more international palate.
Managing director Andrew Shanahan reckons this is the right formula. "People want food that is prepared freshly and served immediately," he says.
Caviar House and Prunier Seafood Bar
Airside, near Gordon Ramsay, it will also have space in Satellite B. The company is well established in most BAA airports but, in line with T5's remit to combat fatigue, jet lag, dehydration and stress, it has extended the seafood bar menu to include even healthier options, such as fresh fruit and vegetable juices with "added serum booster shots", salads, gazpacho, live yogurt and hand-rolled pretzels.
It has also tweaked the design slightly to offer softer seating to complement the trademark bar seating, relaxation chairs with music - and wake-up calls.
Also near Gordon Ramsay, it will have a funky, sexy design. It's the first foray into airports for Itsu, and head of operations Glenn Edwards explains that, as the retail brand has been going for only two years, it was the perfect opportunity to grab a premium location in a state-of-the-art building.
The company is developing the Asian-influenced menu, but Edwards is not overly worried about the all-day catering challenge. "You never know what time of day it is in an airport," he says. "In Japan, sushi is eaten all day."
The budget is for a team of 35 over a seven-day period, including a general manager and dedicated training manager. In addition, investment in the fit-out will be at least £500,000.
At 510sq m, the restaurant will have one of the larger spaces airside and a particularly cool design, with contemporary global mosaics, webcams tuning into various places in the world and images flashing across plasma screens.
Its brunch offer attracted BAA's attention a few years ago. Owners Russel and Juliette Joffe have subsequently worked closely with BAA at T5 to develop a breakfast bar and a choice of seating areas - a café-style area to relax in and a dining area.
Over in Arrivals, they will also launch a Giraffe Juice Bar. It focuses on rehydrating juices, smoothies, yogurts, milk shakes and Fairtrade espresso-based coffees with the addition of sandwiches, soups and snacks. The sites will ultimately be operated by the Restaurant Group.
Confirmed operators to date
- Gordon Ramsay
- Krispy Kreme
- Caffè Nero
- V Bar (launched by the Restaurant Group)
Terminal 5 - the lowdown
- Designed by Richard Rogers Partnership.
- The main terminal building, referred to as Concourse A, is already crowned by a distinctive waveform roof and, at 400m x 150m, is one of the largest single-span structures in the UK.
- The interior is large enough to hold about 50 football pitches.
- Two other satellites are set to open. Terminal 5B will complete in 2008 and be bigger than Terminal 4, and Terminal 5C will open in 2011.
- On a clear day there are views to Wembley stadium, Windsor Castle, the Gherkin and even Canary Wharf.
- Most BA flights will fly from T5, and the aim is that 80% of check-in will be self-service - including luggage.
- A 600-bedroom hotel is planned but the operator has yet to be confirmed.
- There will be 22,000sq m of retail space.
- T5 has the capacity to serve 30 million passengers a year, taking the number of Heathrow passengers to about 90 million each year.