Tampa Int'l Tests Food Truck Concessions in Cell Phone Lot

Nicole Nelson
Published in: 


Project: Food Truck Pilot Program

Location: Tampa (FL) Int'l Airport

Area Serviced: Cell Phone Waiting Lot

Service Schedule: Weekdays 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

Offerings: Menu items change daily; options run the gamut from burgers & fries to fresh local seafood & gourmet wraps with couscous and lemon champagne sauce

Truck Management: Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally

Catalyst: Improve cell phone lot amenities to counter potential resistance associated with elimination of curbside parking

Tampa International Airport (TPA) is scheduled to launch an eagerly anticipated concessions redevelopment program next year, but that hasn't precluded it from offering some of the trendiest eats in the Bay Area in the meantime. Customers just have to venture outside to find them.

While officials finalize changes to the food and beverage scene inside TPA's terminals, new options roll into the airport's cell phone waiting lot every day in food trucks managed by an outside vendor. With options such as The Cheesesteak Truck and Chowder Bus, the pilot program has already generated a loyal following since it began in December 2012, reports Laurie Noyes, manager of airport concessions.

"We wanted to find a way to enhance the services for our customers, and food trucks were a natural fit with what we already offer," says Noyes. "This is a very trendy, unique offering that makes the airport a destination."

In addition to appealing to cell phone lot users, the food trucks attract a broader customer base than expected, she explains. Airport employees, workers from nearby office buildings and assorted community members regularly travel to the lot just to sample items from the truck of the day. "Old school" food truck options include Off the Griddle sandwiches, Just Smokin' BBQ, Burger Culture and Mobile Munchiez. Alternatives with an ethnic flare include Asian fusion options from the PAO Truck, Mediterranean dishes from Maggie on the Move, global street food from Grilland Graffeaties and arepas from Nico's Grill. Some operators have even generated national attention. The Dude and His Food truck, for instance, was recently featured on NBC's Today show.

Further evidence of the concept's appeal: The Food Network plans to launch the third season of its competition-based program, The Great Food Truck Race, in August.

Airport Logistics

Noyes works with a locally based food truck management program, Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally, to make the national food trend work at TPA. With a stable of 25 independent food trucks, the company sends various operators to service the airport cell phone lot from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. 

In addition to managing the standards and licensing of the trucks, Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally coordinates schedules and menu offerings. Michael Blasco, the company's chief executive officer, explains that he selects trucks for the airport route based on overall trends and posted sales of various food types. Mixing up different styles, he notes, is key.

"We try to be careful not to put one type of cuisine there too much," Blasco says. "Five days of barbecue trucks wouldn't do anyone any good, especially the airport folks that go over there almost every day."
Cheesesteaks and hamburgers have done exceptionally well at the airport, he reports, so those trucks earn repeat appearances. "Exceptionally well" equates to $400 to $600 in sales during the four-hour window that encompasses early lunch through late afternoon snacks, explains Biasco.

TPA doesn't currently collect a portion of daily revenues from the food trucks. Instead, it issues the company a ground transportation permit while evaluating the viability of an ongoing service.

Why Food?

TPA launched the food truck pilot in conjunction with its curbside management program, which discontinued parking at arrival curbs, emphasizes Vice President of Operations John Tiliacos. With the policy change, the airport directed drivers to the short-term parking garage, where they can park for up to an hour before needing to pay, and to the free cell phone lot for even longer waits. As expected, usage in the cell phone lot increased to record levels - 90% capacity during peak periods, Tiliacos reports.

"We viewed this (the food truck program) as a way to enhance the customer experience," he explains. TPA's other cell phone lot enhancements include the addition of restrooms, flight status boards, free Wi-Fi service, vending machines and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Originally conceived as a 30-day trial, the food truck program will continue for six more months to help determine if developing ongoing service through a request for proposals is warranted, Tiliacos explains. In the meantime, the airport posts the weekly food truck lineup via Facebook, and continues to earn regular "likes" in return.

"Each of our food truck vendors has been very enthusiastic and energized about the prospect of generating business in our cell phone lot, and they have been good partners," he reports.

Other airports such as Orlando International and Austin-Bergstrom International are also experimenting with food trucks. And San Antonio International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport are reportedly considering similar programs.

Los Angeles International, however, is approaching the trend from a different angle, with plans to build a structure inside Terminal 4 that looks like a food truck and offers a rotating selection of items from the city's most popular food trucks.


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