The past few weeks have brought drama in the very unexpected realm of airport dining. I always enjoy my colleague Hayat Norimine's breakdowns of wonky civic issues, and since nothing could be more wonky than the convergence of coffee, chowder, and Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, I'm taking a cue from Hayat to sort through the basics of what's going on at Sea-Tac of late.
So, what happened, exactly? Seattle's airport is in the midst of revamping its food and retail offerings. No surprise, this is a byzantine, yearslong bidding process subject to federal regulations and the Port of Seattle's own goals—preferences for things like minority-owned businesses, workforce training, environmental sustainability, and management experience, especially in airports. Recently, the airport released its latest round of restaurants and shops with winning bids—a batch of 22 concepts that scored the highest on a point system developed by the Port of Seattle.
Who won? The winning bids are a mix of ideas created wholesale by professional airport concessions companies (like the idyllic-sounding Ballard Beer Hall, which will certainly pour local beers, but isn’t associated with any local bars or breweries) and familiar Seattle names who usually license their brand to those same concessions companies, since they know how to handle things like employee security clearance, or how the hell to get ingredients delivered when a truck can’t just pull up outside your front door like at a regular restaurant.
Local favorites headed to the airport include salad juggernaut Evergreens, Macrina Bakery, Pioneer Square’s Good Bar, Rainier Ave’s Stone House Cafe, Jujubeet juice bar, and a trio of great local coffee names—Slate, Caffe Ladro, and Broadcast (the latter will share a space with Standard Bakery). There’s a Salt and Straw ice cream cart in the mix, and Poppa Woody’s—a collaboration between Sub Pop and Li’l Woody’s—sounds highly promising.
And there's a Mashiko spinoff, right? Uh, no actually. The list originally included a sushi concept called Kio Shi Sushi Bento; the official description promised "sushi handmade by Hajime Sato," making it sound like the chef of the spectacular sustainable sushi restaurant in West Seattle would be hanging out at an airport terminal to personally roll maki. When I emailed Sato last week, he responded with some bafflement—"I have nothing to do with this restaurant and I had not even heard of it" until the release went out and media started contacting him. The port folks have yet to clarify what happened, but his name has been removed from the press release.
Why all the Ivar's drama? The local seafood chain, which has operated a restaurant in the central atrium for 12 years, reapplied and was not among the winning bids (the official announcement of all these new places went out only after a personal sit-down to break the news to the Ivar’s folks). Instead that space was awarded to Lucky Louie, a concept from veteran local chef Kathy Casey, the woman behind Dish D’Lish, currently next door to Ivar’s in the central terminal. Awkward! Casey’s Dish D’Lish, for what it’s worth, was vying for the slot that went to Evergreens.
Where do the dancing clams figure into all this? Ivar’s president Bob Donegan, who worked with the Port of Seattle on its airport food strategy plan in the 1990s, long before he took the helm of the 79-year-old seafood company, did not take this news passively. The company channeled the showman spirit of founder Ivar Haglund to organize a write-in campaign and keepivars.com website. Last week Ivar’s showed up at a Port Commission meeting with thousands of protest letters from fans around the region. Donegan blasted the bidding process at the meeting, while protestors in red shirts and one individual in an Ivar’s dancing clam costume stood/danced outside.
Why is Ivar’s so fired up? Donegan says Ivar’s loss exposes some flaws in the bidding system. For instance, the goal for airport food to reflect our regional Northwest culture clashes with the preference for small businesses. Ivar’s, a legitimately iconic name around these parts, lost points in the “small business engagement” category since it’s too big to be considered a small business. In these cases it’s common to partner with a small business in some fashion (like bringing a local coffee shop or bakery or some such) to get those points, but Donegan says, "We don't do that phony kind of stuff."
Duh—money is part of this, right? It’s surely a better PR move to emphasize the company’s history, its love of ladling chowder for Northwest visitors, and any potential flaws in the bidding process. But Donegan also acknowledges Sea-Tac's Ivar's vies with the Pier 54 location for the company's most lucrative fish bar location. Sea-Tac figures put Ivar's at the 11th highest-selling airport concession with gross food sales of $4.9 million in 2016, between the Seahawks 12 Club in the north satellite, and the main terminal Starbucks. Airport restaurants pay a percentage of their earnings to the Port of Seattle; according to the Seattle Times, Ivar’s has earned the port $5 million over the past 12 years. The company actually offered more money for the spot than the winning Lucky Louie bid, which scored higher in part because it’s a woman-owned company. Depending on who you ask, that's either a victory over purely money-grubbing concerns, or a questionable move for a public agency in need of revenue to fund its upcoming improvements. The Seattle Times editorial board certainly has an opinion.
What happens next? Ivar’s plans to appeal, but here's where thinks get wacky. According to Donegan, there's no formal process in place to do so. This week, he sent a note to port commissioners and the general counsel asking how to dispute the decision. If there's an upside to the confusion, he says, "this does open the window for discussions between us and the port for resolution of the issue without having to go down a formal path." Still, seems like yanking that space away from the winning group would be a volatile move. The airport says the company is welcome to bid for the next round of leases, though Donegan offers up that old quote often attributed to Einstein, the one about insanity being a matter of doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.
When will the new restaurants open? Winning bidders must now negotiate leases with the Port of Seattle. You may not be surprised to learn—this takes a while. It could be a year, or more, before travelers can actually order a Li’l Woody’s burger or chopped Evergreens salad or scoop of Salt and Straw. But restaurants from the previous, much smaller round of winning bids should open their doors late this year or early 2018. This includes, of course, Cafe Flora’s airport counterpart, Floret.