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Why your favorite DIA restaurant’s food is different from its local, brick-and-mortar location

When Justin Cucci would fly out of Denver International Airport more than 10 years ago, he’d usually pack his own food. “As a traveler, I was always let down by the food and the lack of Denver representation,” he said.

So when an airport concessionaire approached him about opening a branch of Root Down — his eclectic, farm-to-table restaurant — as part of a major retail overhaul at DIA in 2013, he decided to take the risk. “I thought it would be cool to make a statement about accessibility to craft food that’s sustainably sourced from local farms in the airport,” he said.

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It paid off. Root Down, located across from McDonald’s at the high-traffic entrance to Concourse C, quickly became a favorite of travelers waiting for their flights. Last year, it was named one of the 10 best grab-and-go airport restaurants in the nation by USA Today.

It’s also among the highest-earning restaurants at the airport. Root Down did around $15.7 million in gross sales last year, according to a December 2023 sales report from DIA. That’s “considerably higher” than what the original restaurant, at 1600 W. 33rd Ave., earns, Cucci said.

Cucci wouldn’t reveal how much of that $15.7 million his company gets to keep, but restaurateurs at DIA typically earn 2 to 7%, according to multiple people interviewed for this story. The airport takes around 15 to 18%, and the concessionaire gets the rest.

“It was such a great opportunity to get into the airport, more than any of us knew,” Cucci said. “That first year, we thought our sales would be around $6 million, and in year one, I think we did over $10 million, so we very much undershot what that location was going to do financially.”

DIA is now at the beginning of another retail overhaul, one that is even more locally focused. Over the next year, travelers will see more than 10 familiar businesses open there, including ChoLon Modern Asian, Mister Oso, and Bar Dough in Concourse C; Mizu Izakaya, Aviano Coffee and El Chingon in Concourse B; and Uncle, The Bindery, and Maria Empanada in Concourse A.

They’ll be followed in 2025 by Fat Sully’s Pizza, Osteria Marco, and Boulder’s Michelin-recommended Santo. That’s on top of more recent local additions like Mercantile Dining & Provisions, Snooze, and Dazbog Coffee, as well as longtimers like Root Down, Steve’s Snappin’ Dogs, Denver Chophouse, Smashburger and Elway’s.

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What most travelers may not realize, however, is that none of the chefs or owners behind those restaurants run their airport locations. Instead, big concessionaires bid for the chance to operate multiple stores at DIA. Sometimes they use their own in-house brands, but more often these days, they license names from local hot spots and serve a similar menu.

Westminster-based Mission Yogurt, for instance, operates 10 restaurants throughout DIA, including Root Down, Etai’s Bakery Cafe and Timberline Steaks & Grille, which was named in 2020 among the the highest-grossing independent eateries in the U.S. by Restaurant Business magazine. Not only that, but the concessionaires employ and train the restaurant staff, pay for the buildout of the space and fund the cost of equipment, food and supplies.

In return for allowing concessionaires to use their name and menus, the restaurateurs get a cut of restaurant sales without having to invest in the initial construction of the business or worry about daily operations and employees. Not to mention the free marketing at what is now the world’s third busiest airport, with 70 million passengers per year.

They have to mitigate the risk of quality and reputation when handing over their name and recipes to concessionaires. But most say the loss of control is worth the revenue and attention they get as a result, and many feel like they can manage the upkeep of the airport restaurant if needed so the customer experience doesn’t suffer.

“I’m amazed at the power of Root Down and what we do there,” Cucci said. “There are more choices than ever for travelers, but I still see our sales going up, so I just hope we’re doing something right. I hope the experience of eating there doesn’t feel like eating at an airport, but at a restaurant that happens to be in an airport. Same with the food. It’s twice as hard if not harder at the airport to maintain the food quality and consistency, but we have a great team. The sales speak to some level of success that I definitely don’t take for granted.”

DIA restaurants taking off

Airports haven’t always been strong promoters of their local restaurant scenes, preferring in the past to rely on the most well-known fast food restaurants or airport-specific brands. But that has changed significantly in the past decade as travelers became more interested in eating locally.

“Showcasing local businesses and restaurants provides our passengers with a sense of place and an authentic Denver experience, allowing them to taste and experience the local flavors and culture,” explained Pamela DeChant, senior vice president of concessions at DIA.

“Additionally, it creates pathways and opportunities for disadvantaged (minority and/or women-owned) small businesses to have a seat at the table with the major operators in the industry,” she added, since most airports provide special dispensation for these businesses.

Mission Yogurt, founded by Rod Tafoya and his mother, Reyes, in 1995, is a family- and minority-owned company with more than 700 employees. In addition to local spots like Root Down, Mission Yogurt operates several fast food concepts at DIA, including KFC, Pizza Hut and Einstein Bros. Bagels, as well as concepts at the San Diego and Orange County, California airports.

The concessionaire is behind 10 of the new or upcoming openings at DIA, leasing an additional 21,000 square feet of space for spots like Williams & Graham, Tocabe, The Bagel Deli and D Bar. According to its initial proposal to the airport, it pledged to pay rent of at least $1.4 million a year or 15% of gross sales to DIA, whichever is higher, for those four restaurants in Concourse A.

Altogether, DIA’s restaurants did $596 million in gross sales in 2023. With 17.76% of that (about $105 million) going to the city, which owns the airport, it’s not surprising that Denver City Auditor Tim O’Brien keeps a close idea on how DIA manages its contracts with concessionaires.

In 2022, his office released a report, showing how DIA allows some concessionaires to bypass the competitive bidding process. The auditor followed up by saying that DIA’s concessions needed more oversight after finding that Etai’s Café, owned by Mission Yogurt, was self-reporting revenue, calculating its own rent, and that its contract had not been reevaluated since 2012.

In February of this year, O’Brien found more problems, saying that a lack of oversight meant DIA — and therefore the city — could be losing money. “One thing we recommended is that the airport ought to have someone auditing these revenues to make sure that they’re accurate,” he told The Denver Post. And although “the concessionaires don’t like it, as well as the people overseeing the concessionaires,” he was encouraged that the airport is now hiring a firm to audit those revenues. “We’ll see if it actually happens in the future, but it was a breath of fresh air,” he said.

DIA’s DeChant acknowledged that the auditor’s reports underscore “the necessity” of more formal documentation, but that it “doesn’t change our fundamental planning principles… we persist in prioritizing transparency, fairness, and quality in our concession selection process.”

For Tafoya, his goal at DIA “is to reflect the community to which it serves,” which is why he focuses on Denver-specific names. “The biggest challenge working with independent restaurateurs is convincing them that we have their best interest at heart,” Tafoya said.

“The amount of sheer volume we do in a day compared to a restaurant on the street allows us to get the practice and consistency that’s needed to deliver the product,” he added.

Finding the right co-pilot

Mercantile Dining & Provisions, owned by James Beard Award-winning chef and local restaurateur Alex Seidel, is following closely behind Root Down in sales at DIA despite having just opened in Concourse A in 2022. Last year, the sit-down restaurant, marketplace and coffee bar did $14.5 million in sales, according to DIA’s gross sales report from December.

“Mercantile is one of the only independent restaurants with three meal periods a day in the country,” Seidel said. “It’s been known for its breakfast, lunch and dinner at Union Station for the last 10 years, so it’s clearly built for travel.”

Seidel was first approached by a DIA concessionaire 10 years ago, not long after he’d opened a different restaurant in town, Fruition. But he didn’t feel like he’d found the right partner and walked away from the deal. “There’s a lot of people telling you what you want to hear,” he said.

Seidel was finally sold by Tastes on the Fly, another concessionaire that operates Modern Market and Little Man Ice Cream among other concepts in DIA, along with 25 or so other restaurants in four other airports, including those in San Francisco, Boston and New York (JFK).

“Before we opened Mercantile at the airport, the executive chef, the GM, the assistant GM and the sous chefs all spent time down at the Mercantile in Union Station, training for a month and a half leading up to the opening,” Seidel said. “Huy [Pham, Taste on The Fly’s minority partner] has become a friend,” he added. “I was cooking in Mexico and he came down to support me, and that’s a real partner, not someone just looking to make a buck off me.”

Tastes on the Fly works closely with Seidel, allowing him to create the menus, help build the restaurant team and use his own vendors. Seidel’s wholesale artisan pastry company, Füdmill, provides all of Mercantile’s pastries and burger buns at DIA. “Not everyone would do that, and I’m just fortunate they want to work with us to ensure food quality,” he said.

The relationship between the restaurant and the concessionaire is crucial since restaurants can live and die by their reputation and their image.

That’s ultimately why things fell through for Joshua Pollack, whose Bridge & Tunnel Restaurant Group is responsible for Denver favorites Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen, Lou’s Italian Specialties and Famous Original J’s Pizza. Pollack had been planning to open a Rosenberg’s in Concourse B, but pulled out of the deal, saying that the concessionaire didn’t fulfill Pollack’s “only requirement” for a commissary kitchen and on-site baking oven.

Pollack’s main concern was that the quality of his bagels would be upheld onsite, rather than having to send frozen goods from one of his stores. “If you have ways to keep your model’s standards and find a good partner in a licensor, once it’s set up, in theory, it should run itself,” Pollack said. In this case, he felt like the concessionaire wanted to take the easy way out.

“Warning: Don’t get bright eyes by the potential of passive income,” Pollack said. “Focus on finding the right operator to partner with. There’s a Rosenberg’s Bagels sitting on Concourse B that will never be a Rosenberg’s Bagels.”

He’s now signed with a new concessionaire, however, Denver-based High Flying Foods, and expects Rosenberg’s Bagels to open in the airport by 2026. “High Flying Foods pays a lower rate than other competitors, but they will do whatever it takes to produce our product with high integrity and quality, which is why we’re doing this again,” Pollack said.

Other restaurateurs, like Uncle and Hop Alley founder Tommy Lee, have had better experiences with their concessionaires.

Mission Yogurt contacted Lee in 2013, a year after he opened Uncle’s first location in Denver, but Lee declined the offer. “I didn’t even have time to take a shower at that time, so opening in the airport was just not on my radar,” he said. But he changed his mind six years later when he felt more “comfortable with handing my name and brand over to someone else to run.”

Uncle is slated to open in Concourse A this August, and as part of his contract with Mission Yogurt, Lee said he will get 3% to 5% of sales (the sliding scale is based on sales volume). “It’s almost like franchising your restaurant,” Lee said. “For what they’re putting up to make an airport restaurant happen, I think the percentage is in the right place. The rent is astronomical; they’re dealing with employees, so it’s a pretty great deal for a small restaurateur.”

But he also wants to ensure his recipes are “dummy proof” and plans to keep the ramen menu limited to favorites, like spicy chicken. To keep things consistent, he is considering using a commissary kitchen for the prep work. “We’re not doing anything difficult, and luckily we have dialed in all of our recipes over the last 10 years to make this easy to pass off,” Lee said.

Cucci also keeps his restaurant menu simple in comparison to LoHi. So you won’t find the rockfish tom kha (Thai coconut soup) or kadhi pakora (a North Indian dish with sweet potato fritters in a chickpea stew). But travelers love the beet salad and classic burger, and Cucci said the DIA location is adding new dishes, like a bison pastrami Reuben and green chili cornbread, for the first time in a few years. A simpler menu also helps keep prices down, with main courses ranging from $17 to $21 at DIA as compared to LoHi’s $29 to $35 range.

“DIA is a great calling card for the LoHi location, which a lot of people have found through the airport,” Cucci said. “Luckily, we’ve become part of some sort of fabric of Denver through our restaurants. The feedback we get is that people either come into the airport early to eat at Root Down or fly in and make time to eat there before they leave the airport.”

Restaurateur Lon Symensma, who owns ChoLon Modern Asian and YumCha, will also simplify his menu when an outlet of ChoLon opens in Concourse C by June 2024. It will focus on dumplings and other items, which Symensma said will be delivered daily from a commissary kitchen.

“There won’t be a lot of entrees, but we have a whole wok set up for fried rice, stir fry and noodle dishes,” he said. The restaurant will also serve breakfast, including a fried rice breakfast burrito or kaya French toast inspired by the kaya toast at the original restaurant.

What sold him on the airport — aside from the global recognition it would bring — was the fact that he didn’t have to make a major investment like he does when he opens a new location of his own in Denver (like the one that is about to open near Sloan’s Lake). “That’s the glory of it,” he said. “You’re not taking on a financial burden or paying back investors for years and years.”

Staying rooted

To ensure that the quality of Root Down’s food and service at DIA is consistent with LoHi, Cucci has an operations chef dedicated to “checking the pulse on DIA as much as possible,” sometimes weekly. They audit the menu to see if any changes have occurred and help Mission Yogurt select the kitchen staff.

“After 10 years, it’s still a lot of work to make that restaurant be what we want it to be,” Cucci said. “My level of involvement was probably a nuisance for Mission at first.”

But the revenue has changed things for Root Down. It also helped Cucci create an Employee Stock Ownership Plan at his restaurant group, Edible Beats, so that his employees could have an ownership stake. “And now they’re the beneficiaries of the DIA profits,” Cucci said. Edible Beats also owns El Five, Linger, Vital Root and Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox in Denver.

“The financial part isn’t what drives us there,” Cucci said. “I never wanted to feel like I sold my soul out there or stopped becoming a local independent restaurateur by doing that. I still want to make sure that, regardless of the financial piece, that the integrity of what we do is still intact.”

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