- Andy Duback
Epic airline delays and flight cancellations have been in the news this winter, and frequent fliers have found themselves spending more time in airports. Meanwhile, tightened security means you can't bring drinks to the gate. So what if you're hungry, stuck at the gate and your flight's delayed?
At most major airports, you grab a burger or a sub or a grande mocha from a familiar national chain.
But not in Burlington. There's no Burger King at Burlington International Airport - known by its airport code, BTV. There's no Quiznos. No TGI Friday's. No Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks.
Burlington's airport may be Vermont's biggest, but it's not big enough to attract chain eateries. Although the airport has expanded in recent years, Aviation Director Brian Searles observes that it still draws far fewer passengers than do hubs such as Boston or Cincinnati, and lacks a steady flow of traffic.
Consequently, Searles hasn't heard from many vendors seeking to set up shop in the airport. "We're never going to have a food court with five or six big chains in it," he says. "It's not going to happen."
Currently just one vendor makes meals for BTV's clientele - Premier Companies of New Hampshire, which also owns restaurants in the Manchester area. Premier has been feeding Burlington's air travelers for the past 15 years. Besides the vending machines and the gift shop, which sells drinks and specialty food items, Premier is the hungry traveler's only option.
Searles confirms that the company is about to ink a deal extending its exclusive airport contract for another five years. He points out that since Premier had first right of refusal for the next half decade, the decision to continue was essentially theirs, not the airport's.
So how good is the food? Searles says he's pleased with Premier's performance. While he hears plenty of complaints from travelers - long lines, lost bags, delayed flights - and he's gotten feedback about the lack of dining diversity and hours of operation, "We've never had complaints about the quality of the food," he says.
Premier operates four eateries in the Burlington airport - two food and drink kiosks, a snack bar and a restaurant.
The kiosks, which are actually more like food stands or carts, sit beyond the security checkpoints in the airport's two terminals, and are impossible to reach without a boarding pass or an official escort.
BTV Operations Specialist Kerrie Fadden agrees to bring a reporter and a photographer through security to see Premier's set-up in the north terminal on a weekday morning. The small food station sits just inside the newly constructed wing of the gate area. A cooler stocked with cold drinks and sandwiches stands against a nearby wall.
A recorded reminder from the Transportation Security Administer provides some ambiance. "The TSA has limited the items that may be carried through a security checkpoint," says a man's voice. "Please check with your air carrier for further information."
These increased restrictions are one of the reasons Premier now operates food stands in the gate areas - you can't take your morning coffee with you past security.
A few bleary-eyed travelers approach the cart to buy Green Mountain Coffee Roasters coffee. The breakfast fare is restricted to a bowl of apples and oranges, some bagels from the Baker's Dozen in Essex, and muffins made fresh in the restaurant kitchen. This morning cashier Kim Bluto has banana nut, cinnamon chip, lemon poppy seed and cranberry nut, a customer favorite.
"Any corn muffins?" Fadden asks. Bluto says she's out. "The corn muffins are to die for," Fadden gushes.
The cart also sells some snacks - date bars and "Positively Peanut Butter" cookies from the Halleluia Bakery in Hardwick, and Three Musketeers bars. The cooler holds sandwiches made each morning in the restaurant kitchen, as well as bottles of soda. Premier sells Coke products; all of the airport vending machines sell Pepsi.
At first glance, it would appear that the bottled water on sale at the cart is a quarter cheaper than the water in the vending machine - $1.75 versus $2. But the price doesn't take into account the state's 9 percent rooms and meals tax, which the caterer must charge. So Premier's 20 oz. bottles of Dasani really sell for $1.91.
The best deal on bottled water turns out to be in the gift shop downstairs - $1.79 for 20 oz. - but you can't bring it to the gate. Of course, the water from the bubblers is the real bargain: It's free.
Air Fare, Premier's snack bar by the airline ticket counters, offers the same munchies as the kiosks, plus a few hot items. The menu features a breakfast sandwich for $3.50, clam chowder, pizza and chilidogs. The food is prepared upstairs in the restaurant kitchen, then reheated as it's ordered; the snack bar doesn't have its own kitchen.
It doesn't have an espresso machine or a milk steamer, either.
During the busy morning rush, one well-dressed older woman approaches the counter and scans the menu. She scowls when she doesn't find what she'd like. "You don't have lattes, do you?" she asks.
She's definitely not the only one asking, says Todd Bianchi, general manager for Premier's Vermont operations.
"We have frequent requests for cappuccino and espressos," Bianchi reports. He says Premier is "considering" adding more coffee drinks, but he's not sure there's enough space for the necessary equipment behind the snack bar counter.
Another drawback to Premier's on-the-go options: The snack bar and the kiosks only accept cash. Bianchi explains that they don't have the phone lines to process credit or debit cards.
But he says they're considering changing that, too. "We need to step forward with the change in the times," he concedes.
Customers who can only pay with plastic have to visit the airport's restaurant, One Flight Up, so named because it's located on the second floor.
The name is too cute, and the décor predictable - antique aviation paraphernalia abounds, and a giant American flag dominates one wall - but the view from the wall of east-facing windows is breathtaking. On this overcast morning, a handful of diners watches planes touch down against the backdrop of Mount Mansfield and Camel's Hump.
Bianchi admits the American cuisine isn't exactly as fancy as the view. The breakfast offerings are fairly standard - the Hunter's Scramble includes two scrambled eggs with chopped bacon, peppers, onions and cheddar cheese, with home fries and toast - reasonably priced at $7.95. The French toast and pancakes all come with Vermont maple syrup.
The lunch and dinner menu consists mainly of sandwiches. "Nobody's going to order a steak here," Bianchi observes. "Most of our customers are in a hurry. You could have the best dressed businessman come here and he's going to order a Reuben."
Still, Bianchi says some menu items stand out. "We make the best buffalo chicken wrap in the area, guaranteed," he boasts. "That's our number one seller as far as the airport employees are concerned."
When he eats at the restaurant, the GM prefers the Champlain Bagel, a roasted turkey sandwich made with sugar-cured bacon, sliced red onions, sundried tomato pesto and Granny Smith apple slices covered with melted cheddar cheese.
Bianchi also touts the soups, which are all homemade and change daily.
Just don't try to order anything past 7 p.m. That's when all of Premier's operations shut down for the day. It's simply not possible to stay open any longer, Bianchi says. After 6:45 p.m., "It's like a ghost town in here." The rare passenger who's stuck overnight has to scavenge from the vending machines until everything opens up again at 6 a.m.
But for all the caveats, Premier's food service has its fans. Ellie Bushweller of South Burlington says she and her husband eat at One Flight Up every time they fly out of Burlington.
The couple is traveling this morning to California with their grown son. They came to the airport early for breakfast. Bushweller had a breakfast sandwich with home fries and toast. "The service is good, and the food's been good, too," she says.
She hasn't always had such good luck with her flights. She chuckles and shakes her head as she says, "Now if you ask me about the airplanes . . ."