On location at SSP’s ‘innovation hub’ in Dublin

Opened in Summer 2022, The Fallow is a signature dining project for SSP, from restaurant design to kitchen technology to menu

IRELAND. “Dublin Airport is a vital location for SSP. It’s our biggest turnover airport in the UK and Ireland. When we won the tender we recognised that this is an opportunity to show what we can do under our new strategy, and a chance to invest and innovate.”

That’s how SSP UK & Ireland CEO Richard Lewis sums up the strategic importance of Dublin Airport to the food travel services group, as we tour the newest F&B outlets opened by the company as part of a transformation of the dining offer at the Irish gateway. Over the past year SSP has been rolling out the first of a series of concepts that it won under a ten-year agreement. In all, these will span 24 locations across terminals 1 and 2, and incorporate a mix of Irish and international brands and new concepts.

The programme has a strong local flavour, with SSP working alongside Irish brands to have a close association with, and supply, some of the new outlets. Many local and certified ingredients lie at the heart of the menus, as we saw first-hand.

Together with Irish provenance, sustainability is an important feature of the updated F&B line-up, with a focus on sustainable packaging and the removal of single-use plastic. The latest technology is also integrated with the new outlets, including mobile order at table services and contactless menus.

Dermot Davitt (right) road-tested the menu at The Fallow in Dublin T2 with (from left to right, representing SSP) General Manager Takdir Hossain, outgoing Chef Tomas Molnar, UK & Ireland CEO Richard Lewis, Head of Operations, Dublin Airport Dheeraj Chopra, General Manager Roberto Gomez, Incoming MD Ireland & Marketing Director UK & Ireland Fi Butcher, Deputy Manager Bronwyn Van-Beek and outgoing MD Ireland & Property Director UK & Ireland Simon Davidson

Among the first new outlets to open were craft beer and gourmet hot dog concept Tap + Brew in T1, and Whiskey Bread in the T2 pre-clearance zone for US-bound travellers. The latter showcases the products of two Dublin-based producers, Teeling Whiskey and McCloskey’s Bakery, and celebrates the culinary links between Ireland and America.

SSP took what was a dark corner of the pre-clearance area and has created a bright, eye-catching space with views over the airport exterior – with a beautifully designed bar as the central feature.

Lewis says: “In what is limited space we had to create something that is operationally very simple and easy to understand for the customer. If you don’t do that then commercially it becomes challenging. So here, as at our other units, great execution is everything.”

The team in the kitchen turns out an impressively large volume of food from a small space at the back of the unit, in an average of eight to nine minutes per order. SSP Dublin Managing Director Fi Butcher says: “Food is around 30-35% of sales, which is higher than we initially thought it might be. We have a really tight menu from breakfast onwards, but we’ve adhered to the key elements of having great quality ingredients and an offer that appeals to this consumer.”

Among the most popular menu items is the Buffalo chicken burger, with Teeling whiskey infused bread & butter pudding themed for Whiskey Bread among the signature (and best-performing) desserts.

Whiskey Bread adds a classy culinary look, feel and taste to what was previously a dark, under-used part of the US pre-clearance zone. Teeling Whiskey was a close partner in devising and delivering the concept.  

Lewis says: “This a lot of what we have been working on. Alongside local sourcing – daa wanted to bring downtown into the airport – we have been aiming to lift the quality of the food, and try new things. I’m proud of what we are doing here, and you can see the team is proud to have raised the bar for our food quality and consistency. That in turn means that Whiskey Bread has our highest service scores of any unit at the airport.”

The offer also heavily features Teeling Whiskey, which was centrally involved in the project as a brand partner from the beginning. Digital screens bring the making of whiskey to life in the bar. And in a neat innovation, an online whiskey quiz accessible via QR code helps customers navigate the selection, and gives them an opportunity to create their own whiskey flight.

This is not the only opening in this area. This month, close to Whiskey Bread, a new grab & go concept called Dubh (which means black in Irish), will open, in space that currently trades as Irish Meadows Express. The Dubh name ties in with the black and white look and feel of the unit and connects with the Guinness and coffee offering, says SSP. It will offer fresh sandwiches, draught beer, snacks, pastries and coffee.

“In this area the best is yet to come,” says Lewis. “We have the new opening, and we are also not yet back to the trading profile or the numbers you would usually see in US pre-clearance, and we continue to resource up. But we are already ahead of business case with strong ATVs.”

The Fallow: Blending casual dining with a premium touch

Our next stop is a visit to The Fallow, which is a cornerstone location for the group in Dublin, and one of Ireland’s largest restaurants. SSP’s flagship F&B unit in Terminal 2 has been open since July, with a concept that took design inspiration from the greenery of the Phoenix Park in Dublin.

This is SSP’s largest outlet in the UK-Ireland region, with capacity of around 350 covers. It features wonderfully light space with views over the runway, and has been extended in size from its previous iteration. Guests order at table with a staff member or order via the app from their seats, with SSP pledging to deliver orders in under 15 minutes.

Here technology and eco-friendly practices are top of mind. Lewis says: “The new kitchen ticks all the boxes. It is a fantastic engine room that can deliver volume, while offering consistency and quality. Sustainability is important too. Our fryer uses a lot less energy and we have a synergy grill that can cook 24 burgers in one minute. There are therefore savings around speed of service. Having not invested in these areas in some time this is a great opportunity to redo some of our kitchens and unlock new capacity.”

While this involves investment spend, it has not gone beyond SSP’s capital constraints, says Lewis. “All innovation starts by costing more but the good thing with our group capabilities is we have scale, and we can negotiate scale. The challenge with innovation is to find solutions that work and that customers want and then go out and procure them. The more you can scale those up, the better prices you get. If you can deploy quickly you can buy at scale and be more efficient.”

The Dublin Airport view

“We are not just taking a step forward, we are making a leap forward.” Dublin Airport Managing Director Vincent Harrison says that the quality of the food & beverage offer will play a big part in enhancing the airport’s reputation as travellers continue to flood back post-pandemic.

“We had a very deliberate strategy that we started on well before COVID-19 and that has been re-emphasised by the recovery,” he says. “The philosophy is, at its core, that food & beverage and the airport experience go hand in hand. It is an ever increasing expectation.

“We absolutely want to move away from the concept of limited choice as people are running for their flights. We really want to have a high service level for maximum choice, whether people are here for a very limited amount of time, either airside or equally in the landside experience. It’s about raising the bar for ourselves and for others in terms of the standard. And being a food destination is a core piece in that.”

Vincent Harrison: Constant reinvention the key

Travellers want a blend of local and world class and expectations need to meet each of these demands. Harrison says: “We cannot just be local yet not meet expectations. But obviously we cannot be a replica of every high street, or non-location-specific movie set airport. We want people to know they are in Ireland and to know that from the provenance of the food.”

daa also has certain key objectives on sustainability and digitalisation that its partners much meet. “What’s important is that these are expectations from the consumer as opposed to objectives that just form part of a scoring matrix,” says Harrison.

“Customers will choose to eat where they consider it is responsible to eat and avoid places where it is not responsible. Aspects such as packaging and food delivery are on everybody’s radar. We want to be different so that people experience varied things. We don’t want to have one standard way of delivering things.

“Digital is an area in which we need to keep adapting as passenger demands change. We have learned that passengers book their car park or car hire well in advance, but book a Fast Track pass for security screening a lot closer to their journey.

“If they’re going to book their coffee, they are probably going to do it on the way to the airport. If they are going to engage with an interactive choice then they expect it to be delivered efficiently. A key challenge is to build confidence into the delivery mechanism. That needs to be totally responsive so the traveller can be enabled to beat the queues, with us having confidence in our ability to allow them to do that.

“The delivery strategy at Dublin Airport and elsewhere is around strong partnerships, notably with companies that operate at scale.

“We wanted to attract major players such as SSP into the market, to develop options to enable choice for the traveller while ensuring competition. We have had to explain what we expect and in turn we need partners who can say, ‘yes we can match that with this connection or brand partnership, or we can go and get it’.

“We have had to learn and adapt too. We know about running the airport, but we are not experts when it comes to kitchen fit-out or food delivery mechanisms. It’s about having a really open partnership that is not just about handing over X square metres; it is about saying let’s spend the time to understand both expectations and strategy, and then building an opportunity around that for both parties.”

On SSP’s openings to date, Harrison says: “We are pleased. The offering is different in each location. It has enabled us to see that variety can be delivered. We are especially happy to have the biggest restaurant in Ireland open in T2, which lets people eat but also sit and relax. But each outlet has different functions for a different audience, and that offers us variety.”

More variety is on the way as daa prepares to release two further bid packages for F&B.

Harrison says: “Essentially we have four main bundles, of which two have been contracted and two are going to be called in the next year, covering speciality coffee and also a package focused mainly on T1 and an upgrade there.

“We are in a constant reinvention phase, maintaining the pace of change and evolution. And we want to give partners the opportunity to say this is an important part of our business. For SSP Stansted and Dublin are their two biggest locations, and that also matters to us. We want to be able to grow our clients’ airport business.”

The menu at The Fallow blends casual dining with a premium touch, with items developed entirely for this outlet using local sourcing. Butcher says: “We work in Dublin with a fine food specialist distributor La Rousse Foods, which partners with lots of smaller suppliers. They wouldn‘t otherwise have a route into this market, but La Rousse consolidates for them and can offer us volume.

Signature dishes that aim to wow the consumer include confit duck, short rib of beef and wild mushroom risotto alongside classics such as Irish breakfast and burgers.

Butcher says: “We keep a constant eye on trends. As we have our own culinary team we can develop our own menus, we can flex to emerging trends such as vegan, and keep an eye on what is happening downtown, where trends can differ compared to the UK market.

“We need to be able to offer a balanced menu choice, offering points of difference while ultimately catering to what most people will purchase in the end.”

That also comes from working closely with those local suppliers unfamiliar with the airport space, to guide them on concepts, menu and the audience they serve.

Tap & Brew: SSP showed its intent to differentiate the offer with this craft beer and gourmet hot dog concept, one of its first openings under the new contract

Developing these outlets hasn’t been without challenges, many of them similar to what airports and concessionaires face in other places. These include longer than usual construction periods, labour shortages, and managing alongside other projects going on at the airport. As with other F&B players, finding chefs in particular has been tough, but SSP says it has reached its head count to manage its Dublin operations now.

Lewis says: “We have an experienced core of people to lead the new staff. The support of daa has been important. With their agreement we began with a simplified menu as traffic was coming back fast and that has helped us. It is far better to do some things really well than try to do everything at once, so we will take the winter months to consolidate and progressively open our new outlets.”

As the portfolio at Dublin opens, a key message is that lessons learned here can help drive business elsewhere, from technology to menu-building to local sourcing.

“We have chimed very much with what daa wanted from the new food offer here,” says Lewis. “When we tendered we were working on some of the elements they also wanted to see: service quality, sustainability, experience.

“What we will work on now is how we take these principles elsewhere. At Gatwick we have done something similar with Juniper, with a small menu, at high quality and with provenance important.

“Dublin is proving a real showcase for innovation for SSP today,” adds Lewis. “We will introduce the best of what works here into the UK market and beyond.”

SSP projects at Dublin Airport

Alongside the recently opened and upgraded sites at Dublin Airport, more are on the way. We present highlights.

Garden Terrace – November 2022

The large terrace area within Garden Terrace in Terminal 1 is being refurbished in collaboration with Heineken to offer customers “a more pleasant outdoor experience” airside. Guests will have the opportunity to order drinks directly from the terrace without having to go back inside.

Dubh – December 2022

Dubh (see main feature) is a new grab & go concept located in the US pre-clearance zone, offering fresh sandwiches, draught beer, snacks, pastries and barista coffee.

Gate Clock – December 2022

The airport’s best-known bar, The Gate Clock, is receiving a a face-lift and being reworked as a traditional Irish pub.

Gate Clock will propose a small, high-quality food menu of toasties and sandwiches alongside local and international beers. A coffee hatch is being added to the side of the bar area to serve barista coffee with a local speciality coffee brand and takeaway food and drinks, extending the service to feature a grab & go offer.

Sports-themed bar & kitchen – March 2023

A sports-themed landside unit in Terminal 1, which is currently called The Angel’s Share. It will offer Irish and international beers and spirits, wines and bar favourites alongside a traditional breakfast offer and pub classics.

Street food concept (T2 AS Mezzanine) – May 2023

A brand new, street food-inspired food hall incorporating multiple “on-trend” food offers including burgers and Thai. This is a collaboration featuring bespoke offers for Dublin Airport as well as collaborations with local partners. Digital innovation and speed of service will be central to the concept which will feature self-order kiosks and orders fulfilled via one central kitchen and dispatched to customers via a hot pass.

Current Café Bar Pier 100 – End 2023

This concept will house high perch seating for a quick drink, lounge chairs for those wanting to relax before a flight, and airfield-facing views with charging points for business travellers.

An eye-catching red bar is complemented by grab & go fridges at either side of the entrance. Within this concept, customers can try a range of items, hot dishes including the traditional Irish breakfast, cakes and pastries. They will also have access to full bar service.

The unit will serve 163 covers and focuses on delivering a simple but curated light bites menu with speedy service and simplicity of offer.

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