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Behind the Line: Fine dining on the fly

One Flew South faces unique airport challenges

By Lauren Kramer
March 01, 2009

There aren't too many restaurants where sushi knives are chained to their cutting boards and FBI background checks for staff - including the dishwasher - are mandatory. Then again, there aren't that many fine-dining establishments situated in the midst of a busy airport.

When One Flew South opened last November in the E concourse of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Corporate Chef Todd Richards was confident the restaurant would fill a much-needed niche. The restaurant, owned by Pot Likker Creations in Atlanta, is a joint venture between Jackmont Hospitality and Global Concessions.

"It's a market that has never really been tapped, and we feel there's a strong need for it in American airports, where people want a great experience throughout their traveling time," says Richards.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the country's busiest airport, and One Flew South offers what it calls "southernational cuisine" in an 80-seat restaurant that includes a sushi bar and a main bar. A take-out service called Fare-Well is available as a branded line of meals to go. That's been a popular choice among travelers as the food is made fresh to order and designed to travel well.

"Our sushi has become really popular to go, as has our burger and even our entrées," says Richards. "People are telling us they want great food, and want to be able to take it on the plane with them. Some are even calling ahead of time and placing take-out orders in advance of their flights."

Business at One Flew South is propelled by the dearth of fresh food on domestic flights, which makes airline passengers more willing to spend money on food in the airport.

"People are prepared to spend $15 to $20 in the airport for good food, and even fast food in the airport will set you back $12 to $15," says Richards. "Add a bit more and at One Flew South you can get a really great meal."

Appetizers on the menu include Georgia shrimp, and clam and miso soup. Entrées are priced between $18 and $27 and include pan-roasted snapper and crispy smoked Georgia trout croquettes.

"With all of our food, we try to incorporate Georgian cuisine by adding elements of the state," Richards says. The snapper, for example, features locally grown greens, mustard seeds and grits.

The restaurant's airport location can present a unique set of constraints. The staff is held accountable for every last knife, and if any go missing the fines from the Transportation Security Administration are heavy. It can also be challenging procuring the regional products the restaurant relies on.

"Not everyone can just drive onto the tarmac, a situation that has forced us to supply our own delivery truck and driver," Richards says. "Our driver picks up a lot of our products because insurance premiums are very high just to be able to drive in an airport."

Then there's the FBI security clearance that's necessary for every staff member. Finding staff can be challenging because not everyone is able to pass the stringent security checks. "I'm not sure what, exactly, is involved in the security checks, but we do know that we've screened people, wanted to hire them and then discovered they didn't make it through the security clearance," Richards says. Even if they do, the time it takes to process their security clearance varies. "Sometimes it takes a day to process; other times it can take up to four weeks," he says.

The clever cocktails and sushi bar at One Flew South have been a big draw for diners, and business has been brisk since the opening, Richards says.

"We know the flight schedules, so we know when we'll get busy, but one thing we don't know is the mix of clients we're going to receive at any given time."

In the airport environment, the old adage you can't judge a book by its cover has renewed meaning when it comes to understanding restaurant patrons.

"Sometimes people will come into the restaurant in blue jeans and a T-shirt and order $200 of sushi. Other times we'll get diners in shorts just back from the Bahamas, ordering a $150 bottle of wine because they're still on vacation," he says.

Despite the constant turnover of jet-lagged passengers, busy times at One Flew South have been consistent with meal times and for the most part, only a few stragglers remain behind at 9 p.m. when the restaurant starts to slow down for the day's end. But even then, flexibility is key in an airport restaurant, Richards says.

"If there's a big layover in the airport at 10 p.m., our usual closing time, we have to stay open. Open-mindedness is really critical in an airport."


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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