City OKs contract with national food vendor for new airport terminal

Construction at the Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport terminal building. (March 27, 2014)
Construction at the Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport terminal building. (March 27, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

The Wichita City Council approved a contract Tuesday to bring two national food chains to the new terminal at Eisenhower Airport, pushing out a concessionaire that has served ice cream and baked goods there for 23 years.

By a 6-1 vote with Mayor Carl Brewer in opposition, the council approved a contract with MSE Branded Foods, of Gainesville, Ga., to run all the food service at the airport.

The firm also provides food service at airports in Akron, Ohio; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Biloxi, Miss.

The company plans to put a branch of Wichita’s River City Brewing Co., plus national chains Dunkin’ Donuts and Chick-fil-A, in a new food court area at the recently renamed Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport terminal.

The new contract leaves no room for Sarah’s Ice Cream and Bakery, a 23-year fixture in the current terminal operated by the Habtemariam family of Wichita.

Micale Habtemariam said he’s sad to see the business, where he has worked since he was a child, close.

He said the family hopes to continue to be a part of the airport and has submitted a proposal to take on other business lines when the new terminal opens.

“I’m excited about what new opportunities hold,” he said. “I know this isn’t the end, (but) it does pull at the heartstrings.”

In addition to Sarah’s, the Habtemariams currently operate a shuttle service, a video arcade, vending machines and massage chairs at the airport.

The council, acting in its capacity as the Airport Authority, had delayed consideration of the concession contract two weeks ago because of objections that the Habtemariams were being pushed out of the restaurant business.

Brewer voted no on the MSE contract, saying he wanted to encourage the kind of home-grown entrepreneurism that the Habtemariams represent.

He said he agreed with Sharon Cranford, a longtime college professor and activist who pleaded with the council to expand its commitment to minority contracting to protect the Habtemariams’ business. The Habtemariams are African-Americans.

“I know that scraping the bottom could be the easy way out,” Cranford said. “It’s easy to go with the first company that shows up with a pocketful of money, having allocated a small percentage of its business to a minority to claim they are a Kansas minority business.”

But she said that sends the wrong message.

“Do we really want to tell our young people that no matter how much education you get here, no matter how hard you work, no matter how qualified you are, we will move somebody in from another state and bump you out?” she said.

Airport director Victor White said his office will continue to consider the Habtemariams for other business opportunities at the airport, including skycap luggage and wheelchair services and maintaining advertising in the terminal.

Department of Transportation regulations require that a percentage of the concession business at airports go to minority-, women-, disabled- and/or veteran-owned “disadvantaged business enterprises,” or DBEs.

In Wichita, the requirement for DBE participation works out to 4.5 percent, White said.

MSE is meeting that requirement by subcontracting some of the airport food business to a Gainesville-based DBE, Taylor Foodservice, a minority concessions partner at six airports.

White said the federal regulations do not allow the airport to favor local businesses when selecting a DBE and that Taylor had taken the required steps to qualify for DBE status in Kansas.

“Following the council meeting last time, I spent well over two hours on a conference call with the (Federal Aviation Administration) civil rights compliance specialist and she confirmed that the processes we have gone through for the solicitation and selection of this food and beverage vendor are proper and in compliance with federal regulations,” White said.

The contract with MSE guarantees the airport $300,000 a year from food revenue at the new terminal, or a share of the gross sales, whichever is more, according to a report from the Airport Department.

The split starts at 10 percent of food and 12 percent of alcoholic beverages, rising to as much as 15 percent on food and 16 percent on drinks, depending on the amount of sales.

The concessions will include:

• A cafe and bar near the airport entrance that will offer sandwiches, wraps, baked goods and coffee and alcoholic beverages.

• A food court that will feature Dunkin’ Donuts and Chik-fil-A counters. The food court would be expandable for other offerings if there’s adequate demand.

• A branch location of River City Brewing Co., an Old Town restaurant, bar and brewery. The airport location would feature locally brewed beer, burgers, grill items, pizza and other “pub food.”

• A full-service bar to be called Air Capital Bar, which will feature alcoholic drinks, sandwiches, wraps and bar snacks.

• A Grab and Fly unit featuring sandwiches, baked goods, coffee and other items that could be taken on board a plane by travelers in a hurry.

The cafe and bar by the entrance will be open to all airport patrons.

All the other concessions will be accessible only to ticketed passengers and employees who have passed security screening.

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