Feb. 6, 2013 -- Forget Panda Express.The latest in airport dining is food that comes from a truck.
It was really just a matter of time. Food trucks have invaded nearly every city in America. Why should the airports -- the first glimpse travelers get of the cities they're visiting -- be left out?
A few airports have recently brought food trucks to their cell phone parking lots. Orlando International has six food trucks at its commercial lot and taxi staging area. One -- Los Angeles International -- even has plans to build a structure that looks like a food truck in Terminal 4, rotating the offerings from the city's most popular food trucks.
Tampa International has the most robust offering. The program started in mid-November as a way to service the throngs of people waiting in the cell phone parking lot to pick up loved ones during the busy holiday travel season. The 30-day trial was such a success that the airport has extended the program through August, with a new food truck every day. There's the Cheesesteak Truck, serving the obvious; Nicos Arepas Grill, serving Venezuelan arepas and chachapas; the Dude and His Food, serving burgers, hot dogs and the like; Graffeaties, serving global street food; and several more in the rotation.
And while the program has been successful from a customer-service standpoint, it's "not a money-making initiative for us," said Christine Osborn, communications manager for Tampa International Airport. "But it's really caught on, and customers love it."
It is, however, making money for someone. Tom Bradley owns the Cheesesteak Truck, the featured food truck at Tampa International that's there once a week. "At first I wasn't sure how it would do, but it's been great for business," he said while ringing up a customer who was purchasing a cheesesteak. "When you're on a street corner, you get the lunch crowd, but that's pretty much it. Here we have a steady stream of business most of the day.
"My favorite are flight delays," he said, remembering a particularly busy day around Christmas when snowstorms in the North were keeping people waiting for hours in the cell phone lots for loved ones.
The food truck at Austin - Bergstrom International Airport in Texas is also a recent addition: Twist of Spice -- serving Tex-Mex, paninis and salads -- arrived in the cell phone lot last month. Airport spokesman Jim Halbrook said the pilot program's been well-received. "The feedback's been all favorable," he said. "There are picnic tables to eat at, it's very pleasant."
Debby McElroy, executive vice president at Airports Council International North America, said the trend of food trucks at the airport was born out of a desire to make the cell phone waiting lots better.
"A number of airports are expanding their services by extending Wi-Fi coverage and adding flight display information so the person waiting can see if their loved one is delayed. Food trucks are a great answer for people waiting for an extended period for their loved ones to arrive," she said.
It looks like the airport food truck trend may just be getting started. "Airports are watching what's happening at Tampa and the success of the program," said McElroy. "Airports are the gateway to their communities. Having food trucks helps local businesses, improves the customer experience and enhances economic growth.
"It's win-win for everyone."