On location

Houston: We have
a solution

Publisher’s Introduction: OTG has long been considered one of travel dining’s most innovative operators. But even by the standards of the renowned US airport restaurateur, its offer at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston is just about as cutting edge as it gets, writes Martin Moodie. The familiar OTG triple focus on design, technology and cuisine is showcased here to thrilling effect across multiple concepts and locations.

Seeing the OTG portfolio at Houston with one’s own eyes is a very different proposition to – as in my case – judging their entries in the FAB awards. You have to see what a passenger sees; taste what a passenger tastes; and be engaged as a passenger is engaged to really appreciate the ambition, excellence and diversity of one of the airport world’s great food & drinks offers.

Earlier this year, I had the multi-sensorial opportunity to do just that, helped by my expert guide for the day, OTG Partner and Vice President of Experience Eric Brinker. Here are some of my impressions.

Come with us on a tour of OTG’s extraordinary Yume Asian Kitchen & Market at George Bush Intercontinental Airport

“The spread of social media has changed the dining experience forever; on one hand there is now nowhere to hide from poor quality food or service. But platforms such as Instagram also showcase, and celebrate, the other side – brilliant food, looks, design features, or any other aspect of a restaurant. This award celebrates that positive impact. Our winner is a concept that features a larger-than-life in every sense design that is so visually spectacular, it often creates a bottleneck of travellers who literally stop in their tracks to take photos that will undoubtedly appear on Instagram. It would be no exaggeration to say that it is one of the highpoints of this vast airport, perhaps the highlight.” – FAB President Dermot Davitt reveals OTG’s Yume Asian Kitchen & Market as winner of the FAB Instagrammable Experience Award at the 2019 FAB Awards held in Dallas.

‘Inspired. Hip. Tasty. Funky. Savvy.’ The words on the brilliantly coloured mural that passengers see upon arrival at George Bush Intercontinental Airport could apply equally to OTG’s eclectic food & drinks offer at the Texas gateway. From reimagined gate lounges where travellers can enjoy high-quality food and drink delivered to their seats, to restaurants that change fascia and cuisine according to the time of day, OTG offers something for everyone across its vast F&B footprint.

Under the terms of its contract with the terminals’ operator United Airlines, OTG oversees all food, beverage and retail operations for Terminal B South, Terminal C (including the C North Concourse which opened in 2017) and Terminal E. When the concession was struck in 2018, CEO Rick Blatstein pledged that OTG would work with United to transform the airline’s terminals into “a hot spot for wonderful food and great shopping”. He promised “a brand new airport experience, including restaurants inspired by local chefs, the addition of modern amenities such as iPads and redesigned gate areas and world-class shopping”. Today those words have become reality.

The colourful mural at George Bush Intercontinental Airport offers FAB Publisher Martin Moodie a vibrant hint of things to come at the Texas gateway

OTG Partner and Vice President of Experience Eric Brinker (right) and FAB Publisher Martin Moodie tour the OTG estate in the United Airlines terminals

The terminals feature several of OTG’s signature flourishes – gate lounges that also serve as dining areas thanks to the company’s food to gate delivery system; ubiquitous iPads that the restaurateur has long seen as integral to its consumer offer; chef-driven menus; compelling design; and a strong Sense of Place.

OTG Partner and Vice President of Experience Eric Brinker says: “We’ve created some really neat features with our gate lounges here in Houston. They are almost like private dining rooms. We have even created a digital art collection – each gate lounge has digital artwork that changes each month.

“Thanks to the iPads, you can play games, find information, drink and eat. Everything is ordered here and delivered to your gate. And then you can pay with your United Miles. You simply scan your boarding pass as your point of entry then tap to order your food and drink. You can have a full meal, a drink or you can even bring your own food. So we have really just transformed the gate into an area of hospitality, created nice little family enclaves, and encouraged people to have a meal before they get on their flight.”

Given that most consumers now have their own mobile devices, are the iPads used mainly for ordering? “No, we’re finding that people are using them to order and to transact with mileage, as well as tracking their flights,” Brinker says. “We have games that you can play on the iPad where you win real time prizes that are delivered to your seat – you can win anything from an apple to a bottle of water to something bigger.”

Passengers can order a selected range of items from OTG’s diverse offer. “We’ve designed the menu so that we can ensure the freshest food and curate the offer. The gate lounge menus vary based on what’s available in the immediate area. We want to keep that restaurant experience.”

OTG is responsible not only for the food and service, but also logistics such as keeping the areas clean. Servers are on hand in the gate lounges to ensure a slick, fast and professional service.

The range of F&B options covers everything from Grab and Go to bars to full-service ethnic cuisine. The latest prototype for CIBO Express Gourmet Markets, for example, offers a wide range of fresh and wholesome foods, including healthy and creative sandwiches (made in-house, on-site) and salads, designed, OTG says, “to elevate the union of ‘glocal’ consciousness and culinary craft”.

The CIBO Express concept – a fusion of F&B and retail – is easily adapted to different footprints and space options. Its various expressions offer a mix of confectionery, foods, travel essentials and convenience items. “We want it to be a place where there are discovery brands as well as those that are familiar to people,” says Brinker of the retail proposition. “So you see KitKat and Twix, but then you also have these Skinny Dipped almonds, which are a new thing that everybody’s loving right now. We have a lot of newer brands and we even have vegan beef jerky. We also like to curate brands that are from the region and discover new products that we love. Our buying teams have done a really great job.”

The CIBO Express concept lends itself to multiple formats

The words say it all: ‘Hand crafted, on the go, fresh, local’

What stands out about the OTG offer as one walks the United terminals is the often startling visual impact of the various new restaurants and bars. Everywhere you see passengers taking photos or posing for selfies, as dining and design concepts are transformed into social media moments. A prime example is Ember, a stunning ‘ode to Texas’ featuring a wooden plank ceiling, chandeliers made of copper pipes and exposed Edison bulbs, all topped by a breath-taking canopy of 10,000 copper stars (see next page for more details).

Discover an ‘ode to Texas’

“Ember is our flagship,” says Brinker. “The stars are the big design moment as we are of course in the Lone Star state of Texas.” But OTG is not just about design and technology. The provenance, quality, innovation and consistency of the food and drinks offer is also integral to the company’s approach. “We have a huge cocktail and beverage programme that’s in place,” here says Brinker. “So we have a cocktail focus, while offering chops, steaks, fish and burgers from a full open display kitchen, and we’re cooking with live fire.”

OTG used the expertise of well-known local chef and multi-restaurant owner Chris Shepherd to create the tavern’s mouth-watering menu, featuring locally-sourced meats including hand-cut steaks and Texas-sized burgers. His lofty credentials include the James Beard ‘Best Chef: Southwest’ award and, being recognised as Food & Wine’s ‘Best Chef in America’.

OTG partners with Grillworks, an acclaimed American producer of artisanal grill featuring signature cast aluminium crank wheels that allow the chef to adjust the height of the cooking surface with the rise and fall of the flames. “Grillworks are in a lot of the most celebrated American restaurants but they’ve never been in an airport before,” says Brinker. “People know it’s a real kitchen when they see it. And our culinary team loves it and gives us the ability to start food from scratch.”

Towards a plastics solution

In keeping with its commitment to CSR and sustainability, OTG will be removing all plastic straws from its Houston operations and introducing a new CIBO Express paper bag. “It’s really cool, very innovative,” says Brinker. “Our CIBO bags are seen everywhere in airports across the US – the good news is that everybody sees them and recognises them. The bad news is that they’re plastic. We think these new bags are going to be iconic. They have a totally new paper design. It’s a recycled and recyclable paper that has a strong brand message and a unique caring design.”

Next stop on the journey is Pala, a Neapolitan pizza concept introduced to the airport by Chef Ryan Pera. Anchored by a central tower clad in porcelain tiles from Capri, Pala features three turbo pizza ovens at the tower’s bases. “These ovens cook amazing Neapolitan pizza in about three minutes and they look stunning,” says Brinker.

We move on to another showstopper, Bam Bam, a 70-seat Vietnamese-Cajun beer garden featuring a long, continuous bar, fluted bamboo columns and pops of red. The corrugated aluminium bar references the Cajun influences while the back bar sparkles with gold mirror panels and red lacquer framework. The neighbouring market (another OTG hallmark) offers jerky and Cajun-seasoned chips features custom rickshaw-style carts covered in Vietnamese newspaper print graphics. A neon sign reads, “We were made pho each other”.

Bam Bam offers a fusion of Cajun seafood staples and Vietnamese cuisine. The offer includes oyster nachos from Chef John Nguyen’s renowned Cajun Kitchen, Vietnamese-Cajun boils, Po-boys, gumbo, boudin sausage and steaming pots of étouffée, all paired with a rotating selection of local and regional beers. The market offers an eclectic range, including bags made out of recycled rice bags, beauty products made with green tea, jerky and Cajun-seasoned chips.

Only in Houston: Vietnam meets Cajun meets Texas

Terminals reimagined

Unlike the new C North Concourse which opened in 2017, Terminal E was an existing terminal space that OTG took over and retrofitted. But whether it’s old or new infrastructure, the focus is also on reimagination, says Brinker. “Part of what Rick [Blatstein] has been so great at doing is discovering or reinventing real estate in airport terminals,” he comments. “So, just like Newark [Liberty International Airport, where OTG introduced 15 chef-led concepts within the Global Bazaar, a vast food hall -Ed], the United terminals in Houston were filled with moving walkways. They’ve all been removed and we’ve put concepts in place of them. Instead of cost centres, we’ve created revenue centres.”

Some of those concepts are among the most innovative in the airport culinary world, featuring outlets that are transformed in look, branding and offer according to the time of the day. By gate C33, for example, we discover Little Purse Dumpling Den, offering a taste-bud tempting range of dumplings. But if we had come here in the morning, the site would have been branded Poppy’s Bagels, featuring a variety of bagel sandwiches. When I suggest to Brinker that OTG might be the world’s only airport restaurateur deploying this approach, he replies: “It just makes sense. You know, 30% of the people in this terminal come through between 5am in the morning and 11. Why offer pizza? They don’t want pizza, they want breakfast!”

Vida Taqueria is a retrofit of a former Tex Mex concept, all designed in-house, and another visual knock-out with a netting structure hung above the gently curved bar. The outlet was introduced in conjunction with famed Houston chef Roland Laurenzo whose mother Ninfa is credited with introducing fajitas to the United States via Houston in the 1970s. Here you’ll find spicy, savoury cuisine including the family’s signature selection of tacos, fresh seafood, enchiladas and guacamoles, all complemented by a brilliant, well-ranged back bar.

Forno Magico Neapolitan Pizza is another winner, with its black and white floor tiling, iPads and bright, naked lighting luring passengers. It offers a selection of Neapolitan style pizzas, salads and small plates, including Cauliflower Cacio e Pepe and Burrata & Roasted Peppers served with pizza bread

It’s time for another wow factor. By gate E23, the Tanglewood Grille draws inspiration from the city of Houston, offering a range of hand-cut steaks, build-your-own burgers, fresh seafood and farm-to-table greens, all of which can be washed down with classic cocktails and a variety of craft beers. It’s a stunning look with great food to match.

But there’s an even more tantalising prospect in sight – and in aroma. “Can you smell our barbecue?” asks Brinker. “That’s coming from Q [by Gate 2].” We’re about 30 metres away but already there is the unmistakeable rich, smoky scent of barbecue food at the Q Texas BBQ Smokehouse. It’s what the Houston Chronicle dubbed ‘Texas perfume’ – the scent of low-and-slow barbecue infused with pecan and oak wood smoke. As evidenced by its FAB award, Yume Asian Kitchen & Market [at gate E11] has become the backdrop for thousands of photos and selfies each week, a social media beacon. “As you stand here you will see a continuous flow of people taking pictures as they walk by. It’s amazing,” says Brinker.

So is Yume. With its canopy of lanterns rising toward the ceiling, Yume is designed to exude the vibrant energy of an Asian night market, softened by the “dreamlike glow of lantern release ceremonies”, as OTG lyrically puts it. The effect is both beguiling and beautiful (see next page for more details).

After this feast of the senses, it’s time to satisfy one in particular. Taste. We follow our noses to Q where Brinker has arranged for me to sample a variety of cuisine on offer in Terminal E. As the Houston Chronicle noted, Q is the airport’s showiest food destination. “Follow your nose to Gate 2 of Terminal E, and you can’t miss Q,” it wrote, evocatively describing the 106-seat restaurant as “steampunk glam: a copper-coated mash-up between a giant liquor-pot still and a vintage ocean liner”. The pot still reference is to the huge distillery-like copper structure that allows the smoke to vent safely within an airport environment.

It’s a great opportunity to meet some of the hard-working staff but first I am introduced to Maverick and Goose, not a pair of dedicated OTG workers but two Oyler pits (smokers) that deliver the unique flavours on offer here, complemented by the human touch of an on-site pitmaster. The smokers are magnificent pieces of engineering, representing a huge investment as well an emphatic statement of commitment to quality and authenticity of offer. And the names? A reference to the smash hit 1986 movie Top Gun of course, where Tom Cruise played Lieutenant Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell and Anthony Edwards Lieutenant Junior Grad Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw.

“Maverick and Goose [the smokers not the actors -Ed] run here 24/7, 365 days a year smoking meat. And we have staff here all night that are tending to them,” says Brinker. The resultant aromas are mouth-watering, the final product even better. Brinker chuckles as he tells of the nearby ramp workers complaining that they are constantly hungry from simply taking in the smell. “They’re always saying, ‘You’re torturing us!’”

The OTG team has put together a selection of items from Yume, Gavi, Tanglewood and Q for our tasting. We try some deliciously crunchy chef’s signature rolls – bluefin tuna with a nori chip; ahi tuna maki; and guacamole with shrimp. That’s just for starters and over the next 30 minutes, as Eric Brinker and I chat about the extraordinary culinary transformation here, we sip on locally themed cocktails while enjoying dishes such as deep fried stuffed avocado that’s filled with jack cheese and topped with vegetables.

The pizza from Gavi, made in a turbo pizza oven, is every bit as good as Brinker had promised. “We all are so excited when we introduce this technology,” he says. “You put great ingredients in and then the oven does the rest. And all this can be done in such a little footprint. We are serving pizza in a lot of places now because of this technology. People love it.” The Q BBQ does not disappoint, the brisket on cheddar jalapeño bread practically melts in the mouth.

With the stunning Gavi concept, OTG has created “moments in space”

Ultimately, of course, it is all about the food. Get that right and then marry it to design, technology and (crucially) great, committed staff and you have a good shot at taking airport hospitality to a level that’s never been seen before. That is the prevailing message here.

“A lot of work has gone into this project, which, along with Newark, is one of our two largest-scale projects,” reflects Brinker. “We have so many exciting new concepts.What’s been so great about what Rick does is the way we partner with people like Greg Gatlin [the renowned pitmaster of Gatlins BBQ in downtown Houston] with Q. Everybody here knows who he is. We don’t put his name on the restaurant, but we hired him to really train us and teach our team. What equipment should we use? What should we be doing? Here’s our limitations. Do you know how we can do something different? What supplier should we be using?”.

OTG may have asked many questions when it set about this ambitious reimagination of what modern airport food & beverage should look like. And it has clearly found many of the right answers.

Recipes to remember

Special menus were on offer at two OTG-operated restaurants at Houston George Bush International Airport earlier this year to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing.

Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, both American, landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on 20 July 1969, at 20:17 UTC. Lounges in United Airlines’ Terminal C gates displayed digital photographs from that landmark space mission, while OTG embraced the occasion with typical innovation.

The iPads used to order food at two OTG-operated restaurants – Ember Tavern and Tanglewood Grille in United Airlines’ Terminal C and E respectively – featured a space-themed trivia game and food and drinks inspired by the meals prepared for the Apollo 11 astronauts.

The OTG culinary team visited NASA’s Space Food Systems Laboratory in Houston to learn about and taste food prepared by NASA’s food scientists. Diners who ordered from OTG’s Apollo 11 menus discovered modern-day versions of many menu items from the Apollo 11 mission.

Unlike the Apollo 11 mission, however, cocktails featured on the anniversary menus, including a peach Bellini, a martini using an orange vodka from Texas and a pineapple margarita. Not quite a lunar landing then but for airport diners a very satisfying earth one.

FAB eZine

December 2019

FAB is published monthly by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd).

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