Waco Regional Airport has been starving for attention, which is why a ballyhooed $9 million remodel will end in November or December. All the bells and whistles are planned, including a dinner bell, as attention turns to placing a new restaurant there serving passengers and locals with the munchies.
Except for a few vending machines, the airport has forced fasting upon arrivals and departures for at least three years, Waco aviation director Joel Martinez said. Officials hope to break the fast when the refurbished terminal is teeming with modern artwork, terrazzo flooring and vaulted ceilings. Once the airport’s hamburgers enjoyed a sterling reputation among pilots, and Waco wants a return to the glory days.
Whether the new restaurateur serves hamburger baskets and boneless chicken wings, both fare from the past, remains undecided. The deadline for proposals to reach the city purchasing department was 2 p.m. Sept. 15. Waco received proposals from three firms: Utopia Culinary Management, Fort Worth; LAI Communications, Waco; East Point Holdings, Longview.
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Jokes abound about airline food, but aviation aficionados take airport food seriously. Several lists exist of the airports with the best dining options. Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport ranks eighth on the list compiled by farandwide.com, which highlights Hugo’s Cocina and Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen locations there. At No. 5 is the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, to which Waco commuters fly daily. Cousin’s Bar-B-Q, Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse and Cantina Laredo are D-FW luminaries.
Martinez said the Waco airport terminal’s extensive remodel seemed an appropriate time to resurrect dining options.
“We would hope to get a local vendor, giving travelers a taste of what Waco has to offer,” Martinez said. “Our request for proposals asks that a sample menu be provided. Selection would be based on that menu, creating a market for it and driving that market. Obviously we would establish certain expectations, hours of operation and so forth. Maybe this becomes someone’s second location, offering a different variety than the primary location.”
The city’s formal solicitation says restaurant operators making proposals should include specifics about business, marketing, management, operations, concepts, menus, experience and qualifications.
The restaurant should open by 5 a.m. and close no earlier than 8 p.m., according to guidelines included in the proposal request. The restaurant should be open to passengers and locals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Vending machines stocked with beverages, candy and snacks should be placed in pre- and post-screening areas, the solicitation said. Provisions should be made to serve alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
The food and beverage area covers 1,616 square feet, and the person granted the city contract will pay $1 a square foot monthly, plus a percentage of sales. The winning proposal also will receive a $19,392 tenant improvement allowance to be spent on furnishing and decorating the space. The amount is four times the square footage multiplied by the number of years in the lease. Waco is offering an initial lease of three years.
“This will be a white box when we’re finished, finished floors, ceilings and walls. The tenant will take things from there,” Martinez said. “We’ll probably have our part finished by late November. We will negotiate a time frame for occupancy during the award process. We don’t want to rush them. We want them to be successful. But we don’t want to hold them off too long.”
Bambi Eskew, general manager at Allen Samuels House of Travel, said a top-notch food and beverage area would add another positive to the Waco Regional flying experience, joining free parking and short security waits.
But she questioned the viability of a restaurant at Waco Regional, where an American Airlines affiliate flies only three commuter flights to and from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Planes depart daily at 5:06 a.m., 10:24 a.m. and 6:31 p.m., while return flights from D-FW depart at 8:50 a.m., 4:55 p.m. and 10:40 p.m.
“It would be nice to have a few extra flights, a fourth and a fifth, to drive a little more interest in the dining area,” Eskew said.
She said passengers often arrive at larger airports three hours early to catch flights. They can avail themselves of dining and snacking options.
“At the Austin airport, they have nice sit-down restaurants, but they also have vending machines for some foods and self-checkout,” Eskew said. “I was there with my grandson at 5:30 in the morning. We stopped to get a banana and milk, used the self-checkout, and there was no hassle.”
Martinez said Waco continues to pursue a second regional carrier. He said it can prove challenging to entice another airline when the industry itself is struggling with rampant pilot and equipment shortages. He said a remodeled airport terminal with a new restaurant could prove Waco “is in expansion mode.”
He said the entire Waco Regional remodel should be completed in December.