As Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport puts contracts up for bid for new restaurants, half of the contracts are designated for small businesses.
The airport concessions business is dominated by longtime concessionaires and large multinational firms with hundreds of locations around the world that have expertise in operating in the unpredictable, security-restricted, round-the-clock environment of an airport.
That can make it difficult for small, local restaurateurs to win a contract at the world's busiest airport.
Many concessions also have been put on hold for years because of a city hall corruption investigation, among other problems.
Hundreds of restaurateurs and concessionaires filled a hall at the Georgia International Convention Center on Thursday to hear city and airport officials present details on the contracts.
"I'm trying to get in" to the airport, said Theo Burnett, who owns Golden Krust restaurant franchises in Lawrenceville and Conyers. "If I can get Caribbean food in there, that would be great…I've been trying for a long time, to be honest with you."
Among the 10 Atlanta airport food and beverage contracts up for grabs, five of them are for single locations designated for certified small business enterprises that have $38.5 million in annual revenue or less.
"This is something different," said Martin Clarke, who was recently named chief of the city of Atlanta's Office of Contract Compliance.
About two dozen locations are up for bid. Proposals currently are due March 25 from companies interested in competing for the 10 -year contracts with a potential 3-year renewal. The city plans to award contracts later this year.
The contracts designated for small business enterprises are for small eateries and bars, as well as one contract in a new space on international Concourse E for an '"international gourmet bistro."
The international gourmet bistro would sell prepared food like cheese, olives, bread, baked goods, artisan dishes and ethnic food options, pasta salads, gourmet gifts and other items often found at gourmet markets, according to airport documents.
Other contracts are for multiple locations around the airport, including one for the food court on Concourse E.
“The airport’s vision is to be a global leader in concessions excellence,” said Marlene Coleman, the airport’s new concessions director.
Among the questions at Thursday’s meeting was whether the contracting could be delayed due to political issues. A state legislature attempt to take over the Atlanta airport from the city is expected to come up during the current legislative session, and the federal investigation into City Hall continues.
“There’s objectives and goals that we’re trying to reach,” said contracting officer Philippe Jefferson. “At this point the schedule is what it is.”
Some of the contracts for spots on Concourses E and B have been on hold for years. It's been more than three years since the contracts for restaurants on Concourse E, including upscale restaurant One Flew South, were supposed to end. The existing contracts have been extended multiple times.
The airport started a contracting process for the Concourse E spots in 2016, but the process was put on hold after then-Mayor Kasim Reed's firing of airport manager Miguel Southwell, and amid a federal investigation into Atlanta City Hall corruption.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms pledged in late 2018 to rebid the contracts in 2019, but it wasn't until early this year that the city put the contracts for Concourse E and other locations up for bid.
Airport concessionaires are often major campaign contributors to political candidates. In 2017, controversy over concessions contracts up for bid during Atlanta mayoral campaigns contributed to the delay of contracting. Still pending since then is the rebid of contracts for retail shops throughout the airport.