Minneapolis-St. Paul Int’l Gives Passengers a Taste of the Great Outdoors

Minneapolis-St. Paul Int’l Gives Passengers  a Taste of the Great Outdoors
Victoria Soukup
Published in: 

What used to be a standard 1990s food court in Terminal 1 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) is now a rustic Northwoods getaway, complete with cabin-like seating enclosures and a faux forest.  

The Metropolitan Airports Commission and restaurant operator HMSHost teamed up on a $2 million renovation that transformed the 6,000-square-foot area into a unique space that is delighting both customers and MSP management. 

“In recent years, we’ve focused on integrating architecture, art and concessions in ways that create a genuine Minnesota experience within MSP Airport,” explains Metropolitan Airports Commission CEO Brian Ryks. “The new Concourse C food court is a great example of bringing all those aspects together to create a sense of place.”


Project: Food Court Renovation 

Location: Minneapolis-St. Paul Int’l Airport

Site: Terminal 1, Concourse C

Size: 6,000 sq. ft.

Cost: $2 million

Construction Timeline: 4 months, completed in March 2019

Food Court Manager & Operator: HMSHost

Interior Design: Ideation Design Group

Seating Manufacturer: Cape Furniture

Contractor: Sheehy Construction Co.

Design Features: Sculpted metal trees; hanging lanterns; enclosed cabin-like seating areas; outdoorsy decor 

Accolade: Minnesota Shopping Center Association 2019 Starr Award for Best Design & Aesthetics Renovation/Remodel: Interior Retail Under 8,000 Sq. Ft. 

The four-month project, which was completed last March, is enjoying commercial and artistic success. One restaurant that installed a kiosk ordering system reports that its average guest check has increased 20% compared to orders placed with nearby counter personnel. Moreover, the food court’s Northwoods design garnered a 2019 Starr Award from the Minnesota Shopping Center Association. 

The recent renovation in Terminal 1 is part of a major concessions overhaul that has added 35 new retail shops and 45 new restaurants throughout the airport during the past 3½ years. Officials at MSP report that overall concessions sales are up 27% since the changes began. 

“Up North” Experience

Liz Grzechowiak, who served as assistant director of concessions and business development for the Metropolitan Airports Commission until February, says the Terminal 1 Concourse C dining area was previously an outdated “run-of-the-mill food court” with four restaurants. It offered the basics—a place to sit and eat; but MSP wanted more. 

“Instead of just putting in another food court, the airport was looking to do something that was fun,” relates Grzechowiak. “Now, the airport offers travelers a comfortable, engaging experience. It’s charming, has a Paul Bunyan vibe to it and everything is dramatic in size. It’s modern, urban and industrial looking, yet it feels like it’s authentic and antiquated—truly northern Minnesota.”

Customers enter the canopy of a forest, created by sculpted metal trees that are adorned with hanging lanterns. Cozy, rustic seating and flannel fabric further reinforce the Northwoods design. “An ode to the great outdoors of Minnesota, this space is functional, inviting and peppered with thoughtful details that breathe life into the space,” she notes.  

Arlette Mulford, senior director of Design and Architecture for HMSHost, explains that it was important to follow the airport’s Minnesota design theme, because the concessions area is in a highly visible main corridor. “Our design team used this inspiration as a jumping off point to create the Northwoods design and showcase Minnesota’s love for the outdoors and the natural environment,” explains Mulford.

Large fabricated trees hide four columns that support the food court’s 40-foot-high rotunda. Lighting is suspended from an overhead canopy formed by welded metal tree branches. The dark tile flooring has rounded edges to resemble shorelines. After all, Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. 

The new food court has 28 tables with 97 seats—a combination of high- and low-top community tables, plus small cabin-like structures that offer more privacy. “We wanted to create the feeling of homey cabins within the environment, so we completed the space by incorporating buffalo check plaid coverings and hanging lanterns to give travelers an added sense of warmth and comfort,” says Mulford. 



Visually, the new rotunda adds a striking and voluminous architectural feature that is visible from a nearby upper level as well as down the concourse it serves. “Four giant columns extend up to the ceiling to support the structure. Utilizing those columns as vertical design elements creates an impact from a distance,” she explains.  

Populating of the Forest

While many airports use their menus or food and beverage providers to add local flavor, MSP relied on architecture and interior design. “There’s only a handful of nationally branded QSRs (quick-service restaurants) that originate here in Minnesota, so we tried to accomplish a ‘sense of place’ through design and aesthetics rather than food,” explains Grzechowiak. 

Space constraints within the new footprint prompted project developers to downsize from four concepts to three. Starbucks, Smashburger and Chick-fil-A were selected based on quality, variety, familiarity and speed of service. 

HMSHost worked with the Metropolitan Airports Commission to identify concepts that leverage the available space and appeal to a wide variety of passengers. “Ultimately, all three concepts meet travelers’ dining needs and offer a balanced variety of choices,” says Michael Price, vice president of Business Development for HMSHost. “Travelers can choose from lighter and healthy selections of snacks and salads, to heartier options including the ever-popular chicken sandwich and custom burgers.”

“This area of the airport experiences high traffic with travelers quickly moving between concourses, but there are also gates nearby,” adds Price. “Because these concepts bring such a large traveler demand, the back-of-house equipment and storage use for this space was a deciding factor in moving from four concepts to three.”

Tech Option Boosts Revenue

Three kiosks installed at the beginning of the Smashburger queue give customers the opportunity to place their orders via touch screens rather than recite them to counter personnel. “Not only have we modernized the appearance of the area, but we’ve also modernized the amenities to allow for different forms of ordering and payment,” says Grzechowiak. 

The kiosks give customers more decision-making time, which has translated into guest checks that are 20% higher than orders placed at the counter. “When standing at a counter, there’s a lot of pressure to make decisions quickly and be really efficient,” he explains. “With the kiosk, there’s less pressure. You don’t have a human staring at you asking, ‘What would you like?’”

In particular, the kiosks have boosted sales of upgrade options. “People seem more willing to add on additional items when there’s a picture in front of them, say of hot, juicy bacon,” reports Grzechowiak. “Adding on those residuals really influences the guest check.”

HMSHost is not surprised that travelers are responding positively to the food court’s new technology, updated aesthetics and national brands. “When you have a well-executed space, such as this, with the right concepts that cater to more traveler behaviors, we see more foot traffic; and that leads to increased revenue,” relates Price. “As passengers continue to see what’s available here, along with the strengths of these brands, we see this as an opportunity to continue to drive growth.”

From the airport C-suite, Ryks says that the recent renovation takes MSP’s food and beverage concessions to an entirely new level. “It redefines what a food court can be and gives travelers insight into how extraordinary Minnesota is,” he comments. “Hopefully, they’ll want to return and explore more of what the region has to offer.” 

Local Non-Profit Savors Airport Food Donations 

Food and beverage concessionaires at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) are doing more than serving customers; they’re also helping reduce hunger in the Twin Cities. Instead of tossing out unsold, unexpired food, they donate it to Loaves and Fishes, a local non-profit agency that distributes much-needed nutrition throughout the community.

Now in its third year, the initiative at MSP donated an estimated 55,000 pounds of food to Loaves and Fishes in 2019 alone. The agency collects food from stores, restaurants and other donors for use at food banks, dining sites and street-level outreach programs.  

“We are a natural outlet for rescuing food from the airport that is ready to eat,” says Cathy Maes, the agency’s executive director. “The benefit of working with MSP is that the food can go right from the airport to be immediately reused.”

Powered by 10,000 volunteers and 40 paid staff members, Loaves and Fishes serves 3,500 meals every day to those in need. Maes notes that MSP is one of the agency’s top providers in terms of food variety. 

Donations from airport concessionaires range from prepackaged sandwiches and salads to leftover soups and pans of lasagna. The airlines also get involved, donating nuts from their in-flight service and items such as ketchup packets and snack foods that are close to expiring.

“The ready-to-eat food we get from MSP is fresh since it only stays on the concourse for less than 18 hours,” Maes notes. “It was all being thrown away before we partnered.”

Food donations collected at the airport are used in a variety of ways. “If we have a bunch of salads from MSP, one of our chefs could have an easy night and make a real big salad by opening packages and adding them all together,” she explains. “Or, a packaged sandwich could be given to someone on the street or placed in the backpack of someone at a homeless shelter for another meal. That’s pretty much the greatest part of this MSP program—the food comes in a myriad of ways, and we can use all of it.”

Vendor-Led Initiative

The idea to donate surplus food to the hungry started with personnel at HMSHost restaurants and quickly spread throughout MSP. 

“The program expanded to become an airport-wide effort, with other airport concessionaires joining HMSHost to help more of our community in need,” reports Butch Howard, senior director of Operations with HMSHost. “The fresh, ready-to-eat surplus food makes a positive difference not only in the airport’s sustainability efforts, but most importantly in helping feed the local community.”

Each week, Loaves and Fishes receives about 915 pounds of food from the airport. 

Pickups occur two or three times per week, depending on volume. “At first, we were picking up in a cargo van because that’s all we had,” recalls Maes. “But because the airport ended up generating so much interest, we were able to purchase a box truck at dock height that can hold a lot more food. That was a real bonus for us, and it now helps with a lot of other pickups as well.”

MSP supports the concessionaire-run donation program by providing holding space for food designated for pickup. 

“The initiative costs us nothing,” notes Liz Grzechowiak, former assistant director of Concessions and Business Development for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. “Our community benefits because we are infusing high-quality, fresh food ingredients into a program that ensures every meal served includes quality proteins and fruits and vegetables.”

HMSHost is proud to be a founding member of the program at MSP. “We are committed to making the world a better place by giving back to the local communities in which we operate,” says Howard. “Partnering with a strong, well-established organization like Loaves and Fishes is key for other airports interested in taking on such a donation program.”  



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