Park City businesses fly into the new Salt Lake City airport expansion
Vessel Kitchen, Hugo Coffee Roasters now open in Concourse A
Brian Reeder and his business partners were in survival mode as they worked to keep Vessel Kitchen open during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. While figuring out how to keep employees paid and navigating curbside pickups, the fast-casual restaurant was also bidding for a spot in the Salt Lake City International Airport.
A few months had gone by since Vessel Kitchen had its final presentation and Reeder sent off an email to their partner, travel retailer Paradies Lagardère, in hopes that there had been a decision. “No, but any day now!” a team member responded.
Reeder received a call a few hours later with the news: Vessel Kitchen would open a new location as part of the Concourse A expansion, which wrapped up in late October. It marked the seventh location in seven years of business.
“It was kind of surreal,” Reeder said. “The airport location was validation for all of this [hard work].”
Construction brought 11 new dining options to famished and thirsty travelers with the airport taking a particular interest in small businesses, including Hugo Coffee Roasters. It will be the brand’s second coffee shop and first storefront location.
Hugo Coffee Roasters, like its neighbor across the street, weathered the pandemic even as dozens of other small businesses closed. CEO Claudia McMullin had felt a lingering gloominess as the community recovered. Now she feels as if the clouds have started to dissipate and a new beginning is on the horizon.
“It means everything. These have been very difficult years,” she said.
The two Park City-based businesses were able to beat out dozens of competitors for a spot with an international reach not only because of their locality but also because of their missions and commitment to quality. Salt Lake City is the 21st busiest airport in North America and the 70th busiest in the world when it comes to passenger numbers, according to its website. More than 26 million passengers were served in 2019.
For small ski town businesses like Vessel Kitchen and Hugo Coffee Roasters, that can be transformative.
A thoughtful approach
Vessel Kitchen’s first location in Kimball Junction had only been open for four months when Reeder and co-owners Nick Gradinger and Roe’e Levy tried to make it into the first phase of the airport expansion. The team was a bit bummed to be passed over in 2016, but they didn’t know the opportunity to bid again would come around about four years later, when they had a few more restaurants and more experience.
Opening lucky number seven was a two-and-a-half-year effort for Vessel Kitchen and its partners at Paradies. The team spent hours on calls working on a presentation to differentiate the fast-casual restaurant rooted in health and affordability. The eatery’s quick, easy and nutritious meal offerings checked all the boxes, and Vessel Kitchen finally opened on Oct. 6.
Reeder said the airport location was different from other projects because the team had less involvement. They assisted with the design and primarily helped with the operations side, such as training. Hiring proved to be somewhat difficult, as there’s a high barrier to working at the airport. However, these employees tend to be high-caliber and have less turnover.
There were also challenges with equipment because of the airport regulations. Vessel Kitchen had to switch to a self-ventilating oven rather than one with a hood. Fryers were prohibited, too.
Yet this led to unique opportunities for the team to try something new. They reworked the recipes of the scratch-made falafel and pita strips, and they’re considering implementing the baked version at all of their locations because of how it’s improved. The new location will also have steak and breakfast for the first time. Since adding it to the airport menu, Reeder said they’re exploring adding the morning meal to some or all locations.
While many people associate airports with expensive, inconsistent food, Reeder affirmed that won’t be the case for Vessel Kitchen.
The restaurant uses a central kitchen in Sandy where everything from the miso dressing to the macaroni and cheese is prepared and delivered six days a week to each Vessel Kitchen. This helps ensure there is consistency and efficiency at every location while balancing quality. There’s also an airport policy prohibiting businesses from price gouging travelers.
It also speeds up the process and keeps costs down. Chopping sweet potatoes could be a full-time job in the kitchen, but an industrial chopper can shred the root vegetables like a wood chipper in just a few seconds. Ingredients can also be purchased in bulk for one site rather than several.
Vessel Kitchen has experienced great exposure since opening in the airport with requests for the eatery to expand out of state. But Reeder seems to have his sights still set on Utah. The restaurant is on track to open its next site somewhere in Heber City, Riverton or Utah County in early 2024, with an additional goal of opening its ninth location next year, too. There are around 20 sites on their radar, including southern Utah.
Reeder said they’re also hoping to bring back beer and wine as well as roll out more seasonal and specialty items in 2024. The co-owners might even release a podcast analyzing behind-the-scenes restaurant decisions such as the practicality of paper straws and the endless varieties of take-out containers.
“We miss as often as we get it right, but we’re not afraid to change. We’re not afraid to … evolve and adapt,” he said.
Taking off in a new direction
For Hugo Coffee Roasters CEO Claudia McMullin, another location was never in her business plan.
She was recruited by Connect Hospitality and Master ConcessionAir in the fall of 2021 because of her eligibility for the Airport Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program as a woman-owned business. The Salt Lake airport strives to increase opportunities for entrepreneurs who are socially or economically disadvantaged such as minority populations and people with disabilities, and wants to maintain a certain percentage of those businesses. McMullin applied for the certification and qualified. She learned Hugo Coffee Roasters was awarded its own space early last year.
The second coffee shop location will be a bit more limited in its offerings because of the high volume of customers at the airport. Customers can expect the same delicious coffee drinks they’ve come to love from the kiosk in the Park City Visitor Information Center. However, there won’t be the same made-to-order food options.
Instead, there will be grab-and-go options including a second local women-owned business, Park City Granola, as well as baked goods. Hugo coffee beans will also be used at the newly opened Rockwell Ice Cream, which has locations in Provo and Salt Lake City, as well as P.F. Changs.
The new location provides a huge opportunity to increase brand awareness and further the mission to save animals, McMullin said. Sales on the second day of business already exceeded the first, and people were excited to learn about Hugo and its mission. With every new customer, that’s additional people directed to the website with more money donated to cash-strapped rescue organizations across the country.
McMullin hopes to grow Hugo Coffee Roasters into a nationwide presence and its success in Concourse A will be critical to realizing that dream. She said she’s already started looking into becoming a concessionaire at other airports in the area and may consider franchising the coffee shop. McMullin is also planning to redesign her packaging to be more sustainable and may consider launching canned cold brew products.
And now she feels like she’s finally heading in the right direction.
“I see for the first time in three years that I am excited about the future, and I’m excited about the growth of Hugo coffee. I know we’re not only going to survive as a company, but we’re also going to thrive and save a ton more animals,” she said. “It gives me chills, frankly.”
The Sheriff’s Office responded to two other calls between Monday, Nov. 20, and Sunday, Nov. 26. The reports were of an active warrant and a traffic violation.
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