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There's Not Much 'Uniquely San Diego' About Chain-Food Mexican

The new San Diego airport terminal wants to be “uniquely ‘San Diego'” — so why is its Mexican restaurant a chain?

 

Reporters in town got a sneak peek Tuesday at the six new terminal gates at the San Diego Airport. There’s lots of love about the doggie restroom and digital public art. And travelers can expect the eating to get a little better too.

We’re pleased to see some local restaurants filling space there: Pannikin Coffee & Tea, Phil’s BBQ, Saffron, Stone Brewing Company and a Tender Greens spinoff called Garden by Tender Greens. It dovetails with the airport’s Concession Development Program goals, including: “to create a sense of place that was uniquely ‘San Diego’ by incorporating more local San Diego flavor.”

That provided local restaurateur Pete Balisteri, owner of Tender Greens, a toehold in the commuter terminal while remaining true to his concept.

“We had to create a separate concept that would fit with the airport,” said Balistreri. “We’ll still source locally, and it will have the same standards and service, but the menu is a little bit different. There will be some slow cooking, ancient grains, different grilling techniques, breakfast and a full bar.”

While those restaurants represent some local, mouth-watering goodness, the fact is, San Diego is a border town. We’re practically synonymous with fish tacos and guacamole.

That makes the Airport Authority’s decision to award Qdoba Mexican Grill – a fast food chain with no prior San Diego presence — a coveted restaurant spot in Terminal 2 West pretty baffling.

In an email to VOSD, San Diego resident Deb Porter writes: “What San Diegans love above all is their Mexican food. We have some great Mexican restaurants in our town. Why grant this opportunity to a mass production chain restaurant?? I think it’s heresy.”

She’s got a point. So I called Steve Shultz, airport spokesperson, for an explanation.

It turns out the process to bring concessions into the airport is somewhat complicated. After the Airport Authority ended its long-standing contract with HMS Host, Shultz said they proceeded to open up the bidding process.

“We ended up with 12 different master concessionaires. They were responsible for consulting with various brands, and decide what they could put together as a package. That’s where we started seeing a lot of local concepts pop up,” said Shultz.

In all, those 12 master concessionaires are raising the total number of concessions from 55 to 87 by 2014.

Shultz reminded that Qdoba Mexican Grill is a subsidiary of another fast food chain, Jack in the Box, which maintains a San Diego headquarters.

That’s true, but classifying Qdoba as a local San Diego restaurant is still a stretch. Travelers looking to wrap  their trip with a quick fish taco or a pile of chips and salsa may want to hit up another local chain on their way to the airport: Rubio’s.

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email clare@leschin-hoar.com.

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