A new service being offered in Germany has garnered quite a few skeptical headlines this week. The meal-delivery start-up Air Food One allows subscribers to fulfill the dream of eating terrible airplane food from the comfort of their own home. With a choice between a meat-based entrée and a vegetarian dish, it’s just like being on a Lufthansa flight—the airline’s commissary is providing the meals—except you don’t end up in Paris or Stockholm afterward.
Here in the United States, some airports are, thankfully, moving in the opposite direction, bringing more of the local, healthy food Americans increasingly eat at home to the concourse.
That’s right, airports—where not too long ago the range of food choices was pretty much between Burger King or Panda Express—are starting to dip their toes into the local food market, launching a handful of farm-to-table restaurants and upscale marketplaces selling regional products. One of the latest such marketplaces, Berkshire Farms, opened at Boston’s Logan International Airport earlier this year, offering travelers jams and syrups bottled in Massachusetts, locally baked breads and pastries, and nuts roasted in nearby Williamstown.
It’s all the brainchild of Michael Levine, CEO of Tastes on the Fly, which curates culinary options at airports across America. He believes travelers shouldn’t have to set aside their preferences for healthy, local, organic food—preferences he shares—just because they’re at an airport. Similarly, given the number of people who pass through U.S. airports every day (about 1.7 million), Levine says he feels a responsibility to show more Americans a different way of eating.
“If every airport started offering fresher, more local, organic-based, healthy food products, people would say, ‘This is what I want,’ ” he said. “It impacts a lot of people.”
Everywhere Levine has tried the “farm to flight” concept—a phrase he trademarked—success has followed. At Logan’s Berkshire Farms, sales have far surpassed first-year projections of between $1.7 and $2 million; the marketplace is expected to bring in around $3.7 million in sales this year.
“It’s about time. This is terrific,” Kathy Kopp of Watertown, Mass., told The Boston Globe after discovering Berkshire Farms. “For years we’ve just had this crappy airport food.”
Tastes on the Fly partnered with Berkshire Farm & Table—an organization that promotes the Berkshires’ food producers—to find local vendors to supply the store. Berkshire Farms is modeled after the successful Napa Farms Market at San Francisco International Airport, where a layover could mean sipping a cup of Equator Coffee, snacking on fromage blanc from Cowgirl Creamery, or picking up a bottle of red from local favorite Vino Volo.
Levine will soon debut his third farm-to-flight business: Modmarket, a fast-casual cafeteria that will open in Denver International Airport’s Concourse B in the fall. In May, gastropub The Local started serving travelers at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, sourcing ingredients from Vermont’s rich agricultural bounty. Up the road a bit, Burlington International Airport has made an effort over the last several years to stock its shelves with more Vermont-made cheeses, maple syrup, and ice cream.
“Local products are what sells in the state, and that’s what everybody wants,” airport marketing coordinator Ryan Betcher told WCAX in 2012.
O’Hare International Airport in Chicago probably takes the cake for sourcing locally. The airport’s aeroponic garden produces between 10 and 15 pounds of vegetables every week on more than 1,000 eight-foot-high vertical plants packed into a relatively small space in Concourse G. The organic produce is grown without the use of soil and is put to use in several airport restaurants. It’s a fitting return to the surrounding area’s history: O’Hare’s airport code, ORD, refers to the property’s former name, Orchard Field. What are now runways used to be rows of apple trees.
As for Levine’s “farm to flight” marketplaces, will we soon be seeing the best of Colorado and Illinois farms at the Denver airport and O’Hare?
“I’ve been approached by many airports,” he said. “We’re just looking for the right places to put them.”