The family and minority-owned entity has been in business since 1979, with a storied history that reflects much of the past 35 years in airport development in the U.S.
LeMonica Hakeem, Vice President of Business Development at Concessions International, talks about the pride that the company takes in being independent and guest- and quality-oriented.
“We are a leading food & beverage operator in airports and really take pride in being a family-owned business. A lot of our competitors have been acquired by foreign conglomerates but we are excited that we are still family owned. We also have no private equity [investment] and work with a lot of great local, national and regional brands in the airport market. That in itself sets us apart from the competition and makes us special,” Hakeem tells TMI.
Company founder Herman J. Russell was devoted, hard-working and very active in the civil rights movement, she recalls.
“Herman was a phenomenal person. He was friends with Dr. Martin Luther King and in fact used to bail Dr. King out of jail and support the civil rights movement financially,” she says.
In the 1970s, the airport concession industry began requiring more minority participation, and Russell was approached to enter the airport because he had built a very strong construction company, and was financially capable.
“From the beginning, he insisted on actually participating in the business and not just checking the minority box on the application. From then, the company really grew on its merit and its capabilities,” says Hakeem.
“We made sure to put the right people in the right places. We started in 1979 and still today continue to grow and thrive and be very competitive in the industry.
Importance of Food & Beverage
Hakeem explains that F&B is imperative to the functioning of an airport today.
“The hustle and bustle of traveling to an airport, rushing for business, or traveling with children, can be frustrating and stressful and most people need to grab something to eat or drink. So it is vital for us to remain relevant. People are becoming a lot more conscientious about what they eat so the landscape of the entire industry has been changing. Some nationally branded concepts that we used to see in multiple locations are less attractive today based on the new trends in the market that focus on farm to table, healthier offerings, tapas and more.
“The heightened awareness of the trends that are happening on the street side have definitely moved into the airport.”
Hakeem says that a concessionaire such as CI must continually strive to remain relevant, and every detail counts.
“We must understand the airport passenger in each of the terminals in which we operate. What works for a Spirit or Southwest customer may not be the same as what a Delta customer is looking for. We pay attention to the airport layout, the customer, the number of travelers. Any customer data that we can get from the airport is important.
“From there, we look for brands that have the right systems and experience. If they have worked in an airport before, that makes life a lot easier for us.”
When looking for brands to offer in their airport locations, CI can deal with a $7 billion company like Darden Restaurants, or a local two-person team who just created a great concept that they think will resonate well.
“Clearly, a Darden understands how to do food and how to deliver their product in non-traditional spaces. The local team may not have the systems but if we think their concept can translate and that they are open and flexible to work with our culinary team to be able to execute in this environment, we would want to try.
“It ranges, but definitely our brand partners have to be flexible enough to understand that the kitchen and space will be a lot smaller than what they are accustomed to. But as long as they are flexible, we can make it work,” she says.
Speed of service is another critical element in an airport environment, and chef-driven concepts are gathering great attention. CI has staged a number of airport activations with its celebrity chefs.
“Michael Symon, from Bar Symon, Iron Chef, in Dulles, has done several events including signing his cook book. Tom Catherall in ATL has done chef demonstrations, and we are really improving our Social Media presence and doing a better job of promoting these things,” says Hakeem. “But even people who are passing by stop when they see a chef demo. This is exciting.”
Hakeem believes that CI has thrived the way it has for more than three decades because it has always been based on values that include integrity and professionalism.
“We are also very personable, very approachable, very flexible and very responsive. It is not hard to get decisions made. We want to try new things, be different, be daring and we really want to deliver the best quality.”