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No man’s land: Why some of Tampa’s most iconic restaurants are still closed at Tampa International Airport

Full Circle: A look at restaurants inside TPA
Tampa International Airport.
Posted at 1:53 PM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-11 17:55:37-05

TAMPA, Fla. — Only paid passengers flying in or out of Tampa International Airport can eat inside the airport terminals. And, that is putting restaurants inside airside terminals in a tough spot.

Some restaurants reopened, while others are still waiting for travelers to come back.

According to national statistics from the TSA, air travel is still less than half of what it used to be. The days of two-million-plus passengers a day are gone. Nationally, airports across the country are lucky if they break the 800,000 passengers.

In 2019, Tampa International announced an All Access program. It allowed up to 100 people every Saturday to visit an airside terminal of their choice so they can shop, dine and relax without a plane ticket. Because of COVID-19, that program is on hold, and foot traffic in the terminals is still at an all-time low.

Many people may not realize that restaurants operating at the airport don't own or operate their brands. The businesses are contracted out to concessionaires. Two of the largest global concessionaires, HMS Host and SSP, pay royalties to restaurant groups they signed contracts with.

LOUIS PAPPAS

"We are still closed at the airport, indeed we are, and we would love to take it back over if we had the opportunity on a corporate level," Louis Pappas, the owner of Louis Pappas Fresh Greek said.

Pappas signed a 10-year contract with SSP. His location inside Airside C of Tampa International's remained closed since the March lockdowns. He is coming up on a full year with zero sales. That adds up to a lot of lost revenue in royalties. With Spring Break fast approaching, Pappas wants to get the location back up and running.

"Although we have an agreement with SSP we don’t know what they are going to do," Pappas said. "I’ve talked to the guys with SSP to inform everyone, 'listen if you aren't going to move and open us back up then let us know and we’ll open our own selves back up.' That leaves us kind of all the vendors out there franchisees if you will looming out there what is going to happen."

A spokesperson with SSP told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska TPA still doesn't have enough travelers to reopen all of their locations. The company is balancing food and labor costs and only opening locations that are the most profitable.

Pappas understands the number of travelers passing through Tampa is still at an all-time low. But, he wants to at least have the option to open a few times a week, even if it is only a few hours a day.

"They see one in the airport, wow, look at that you know so it’s good recognition," Pappas said. "If if it was a viable proposition and yes it is somewhat frustrating and yes indeed we want to take it back and get it open."

BAVARO's PIZZA

Bavaro's Pizza is also still closed at the airport. His restaurant is right next to Louis Pappas

"Zero revenue, just straight zero," owner Dan Bavaro said.

COVID-19 impacted all of the restaurant operations we talked to. The lucrative contracts at the airport were supposed to be a steady stream of income during slow seasons. Now, it's gone.

"We are dependent on the royalties to help offset our operating expenses as a company and especially with COVID," Bavaro said.

Bavaro understands why his restaurant isn't on the shortlist to re-open.

"Bavaro is a labor-intensive business model," Bavaro said. "At the airport, we are probably the only pizzeria Neapolitan pizzeria at the airport that uses a hundred-year-old yeast starter. We use this culture that I got 14 years ago in all the restaurants for our dough. You gotta feed it three times a day. They use that and hand roll every dough ball at the airport just as we do in these restaurants here."

Bavaro also signed with SSP. He explained how the contracts with the airport concessionaires work.

"The way that our agreement is they represent us they staff it, they cover the expenses, and we as the owners and our operators support that business and support the brand inside the airport," Bavaro said.

THE COLUMBIA RESTAURANT

Not all restaurants are closed at the airport. The Columbia Restaurant Group has four restaurants in the airport. Goody Goody Burger, Cafe Con Leche, Ulele and their flagship Columbia. All are back open and the Columbia never closed.

"HMS Host has properties all over the world and the Columbia restaurant was the only restaurant they did not close in their entire portfolio” Casey Gonzmart Jr., a 5th generation owner of the Columbia said. "We are really proud of the fact that they chose us to be the restaurant that’s stayed open that was pretty neat."

We sat down with Gonzmart in the Don Quixote room of their famed Columbia restaurant location in Ybor City. Walking through the front doors you can feel the history.

"This room right here is the first air-conditioned room in Tampa an incredible thing which was almost a hundred years ago and that’s just this room," Gonzmart said. "This has been my most challenging time and my uncle always says each generation will face their own set of circumstances their own set of challenges they are going to face. We’ve had 21 presidents we’ve had two world wars and like you said the Spanish flu and even in this area urban renewal coming in each property we’ve had a lot of different challenges as a restaurant group."

A historical fact that Gonzmart says gets overlooked is their connection to the Wright Brothers' first flight from Kitty Hawk, NC.

The restaurant was founded in 1905. But, the Columbia saloon Dec. 17th, 1903. The same day the Wright Brothers made their first flight. Twelve seconds in the air that changed travel forever.

"Not only are we in the airport but we are the only restaurant that has a story like that that connects that well with flight," Gonzmart said. It comes kind of full circle in a way. Airports are around because the Wright brothers took off and just so you know that our restaurant group was created on that same day the Wright brothers took off from Kitty Hawk."

For Gonzmart and all the other owners, the airport is Tampa's front door and they always want to keep it open for travelers visiting our beautiful city.

"We never want to leave," Gonzmart said. "I don’t care what the sales are I don’t care whatever the monetary benefits from it. We just feel it is a great thing a great place to represent our brand and to represent Tampa and that’s really the best part of the whole thing for us."

WHEN WILL TRAVELERS COME BACK?

On March 1, 2020, TSA numbers show that 2,280,522 travelers went through security nationally. On April 14, 2020, that number dropped to 87,534 due to the pandemic. At TPA, they hit rock bottom during that same period averaging 2,000 to 3,000 passengers a day. The airport was setting record numbers for travelers leading up to the pandemic. During peak travel averaging more than 85,000.

“We make most of our money from concessions from parking those go into our operating revenues,” Emily Nipps an airport spokeswoman said. “We get our money from people who use the airport.”

Nipps said TPA had a very strong emergency fund and is doing better than most. But, they took a huge hit too.

“We lost 97% of business in late March-early April that was probably the lowest point,” Nipps said. “We sort of had a rainy day fund, if you will, for events like this like a 9-11 something we couldn’t foresee. We were in a fortunate position going into the pandemic where we had put a lot of money in reserves so we were in a strong financial position going into the pandemic which helped us weather the huge downturn in traffic.”

The question everyone wants to answer but can’t. When will this all be over? The airport was expanding to handle 35-million passengers a year.

“We’ll be looking at our passenger forecast again in the next year or two. So much uncertainty with this pandemic we are really projecting for this year about 15.1 million passengers now that is compared to the 23 million we were expecting last year,” Nipps said. “You know, I think we are more optimistic than maybe some other airports we are fortunate to be in the Tampa region we think is going to be more resilient than others given that people want to come to beaches they like the outdoor spaces.”

CONCESSIONAIRES

We asked both HMS Host and SSP for on-camera interviews. Both provided ABC Action News with statements on the struggles they are facing.

“This is not a crisis that’s going away any time soon. Right now, we’re focused on survival. And, even once we get past that, the recovering and rebuilding phases won’t be for the faint of heart. During recovery, our hope will be to consistently break even on our units. Down the road, which is quite some time away, it will take a great deal of effort to rebuild. You don’t just flip a switch to open, downsize, rebuild or reopen a restaurant. These are complex, living, breathing businesses. It will take all we have to handle the days and months ahead,” John D. Clark, Vice President, Business Development, SSP America said.

“Despite the unrelenting loss of business as the pandemic rages on, HMSHost is proud of our airport operations team for providing continuous food and beverage services to our valued passengers at TPA. We are thankful for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority’s support during this very challenging time and their partnership to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for our associates and guests. HMSHost is a leader in travel dining and we plan to emerge from this crisis stronger. We are laser-focused on safely opening restaurants as travel rebounds,” HMSHost Spokesperson at Tampa International Airport said.