September 13, 2023

Mobile Food Ordering Is Finally Coming to US Airports

The days of iPad ordering at airport restaurants are nearly over. From Aug. 14, airport concessionaire OTG Management is retiring the 21,000 Apple Inc. devices powering orders across 350 venues and 23 terminals, in North American airports including JFK, LaGuardia and Newark. In their place will be the phone already in your pocket.

It means you can get your breakfast bagel delivered gate-side, order Artichoke pizza while watching the minutes tick by at a TSA checkpoint, or reserve your Starbucks latte from 30,000 feet in the air, for pickup the minute you land. Like with Grubhub or DoorDash, payment is via Apple Pay or credit card. But unlike with those services, travelers won’t have to download an app to place their airport food order — OTG thinks few people travel frequently enough to warrant that. Instead, menus will be available via QR codes displayed around terminals and airport restaurants, as well as on a centralized website.

The program is now in beta testing and available at many of OTG’s locations — and early success has given the company faith that it can remove its old systems. In September, the current QR codes will be replaced with new ones, giving users the ability to order at any restaurant in their terminal from a single link. (Currently the links are venue-specific.) Pre-orders are also coming, starting in September at Newark, allowing travelers to schedule a pickup at a designated time up to 24 hours ahead. Rick Blatstein, chief executive officer of OTG, says that feature will be especially helpful for customers who are likely to be in a hurry amid a tight connection.

Blatstein says the pandemic accelerated the trend toward mobile food ordering, which would have been a next natural step for his company regardless. And while the majority of OTG’s business has focused on people coming directly to its restaurants or bars in the terminals, he’s excited about the growth of gate-side delivery as a new option.

“I travel for a living and still go into an airport and find out where my gate is, first thing,” he says, recognizing how many travelers prioritize getting a seat near their boarding counter as soon as they’ve passed security. For these types, getting up to procure food means risking that they’ll lose their coveted spot or even miss an important flight announcement.

OTG‚ which was founded in 1996 and is best known for bringing beloved local food institutions into airports, isn’t the first company to dabble in gate-side mobile ordering. In 2019, HMSHost, OTG’s main competitor, experimented with outsourcing the same type of technology from the startup Airport Sherpa, but its small pilot program was discontinued and Airport Sherpa has since ceased operations. No other company has yet to deploy mobile orders at the same scale as OTG is pursuing—a leap that’s possible because OTG is building its technology in-house.

Blatstein calls this the most expensive software upgrade the company has ever done; he says it cost “millions” but declined to give an exact figure.

There are many ways in which he expects it to pay off. Among them, he says OTG’s change to mobile ordering will speed up the process of orders reaching the kitchen and guests paying out tabs, which he hopes will encourage more people to get food even when they’re in a hurry. At this time, he says, the company isn’t planning to reduce checkout staff.

During beta testing, adoption of the new technology has been steadfast—even across age demographics. “I was at one of our locations two weeks ago and sat across from an older couple. I was so nervous [watching them], but they were able to order on their phones like it was nothing,” Blatstein says. “It’s intuitive to use for everyone with a phone.”

Copyright 2023 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. From By Sarah Rappaport, Bloomberg News.

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