Off-Topic: Coffee at the Airport ** UPDATED (3/26)**

UPDATES AT THE END

My coffee preferences, in no particular order:

  • Iced coffee from Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco: It’s perfect
  • Homemade cold brew: It’s like an acid-free coffee concentrate
  • Starbucks iced coffee: It’s reliable and the same all over the country
  • Cafe Kubal‘s iced pour-over

I would drink Kubal exclusively if it were closer to my office or if the Downtown location were a  little easier to get to. Admittedly, I’m late to Cafe Kubal. Others had sung its praises for years before I had my first pour-over and experienced mana over ice. But this isn’t necessarily about coffee. It’s about the Syracuse Hancock International Airport.

Syracuse’s sad little airport.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s wrong to think we should have some Eero Saarinen-designed masterpiece in Syracuse, but as the brilliant Patrick Smith writes at AskThePilot.com, American airports are terrible. Air travel, an American industry if there ever was one, has been mangled by its own greed. The explosion of airports in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s has led to outdated buildings that no one in 2000, 2010 or 2014 wants to spend money in renovating (not unlike the rest of our infrastructure). Syracuse’s current airport renovation has been LONG overdue.

In February, while headed to New Orleans, I got my first glimpse of the new security area. Bright and wide open, it looked like the security area in a larger city’s airport. And beyond the security gate was the best thing a traveler could find at 4 a.m.: an open and operational Cafe Kubal kiosk. Not only could I get a well-deserved iced red eye, I was certain that it would be good. It wasn’t. It was better than good. It tasted like the coffee beans had been roasted sometime that century; like the coffee had been brewed at some point that week; and it was presented by a person that did not need the instructions for constructing a “red eye” recited to them. To me, this was a first step in making Syracuse’s airport something more than a sterilized necessity for travel. It said — brighter than the big neon sign on the outside of the terminal — Syracuse.

And then I read this on Twitter last night:

It turns out that the airport, which is operated by the Syracuse Regional Airport Authority — a group of government and business leaders appointed by the Mayor of Syracuse and Onondaga County’s County Executive — recently selected a concessionaire for the airport that is not interested in keeping Cafe Kubal around. There were “discussions” of a “potential” landing spot for Kubal in one of the terminals, but that apparently will not happen. Creative Food Group, the hospitality company now running the food and beverage show at the airport, has opted for America’s largest purveyor of stale donuts and coffee strained through a sweaty sports bra. Yep, you guessed it:

Dunkin Effin Donuts.

So, let’s reset here: Local airport managed by local businessleaders that often complain about a stagnant local economy and a crumbling local tax base allow a New York City-based company to remove a local business from the local airport in lieu of a franchise that serves bitter coffee and second-rate baked goods.

Yeah, that sounds right.

Oh, but there will be a Middle Ages Brewing Company, you say. Correct, thus far Creative hasn’t abandoned this concept, however I would like to point out one thing. Ever notice when the vast majority of flights depart Syracuse? If you said before 9 a.m., you would be correct. Syracuse is not a hub like Charlotte where people have layovers. Think about every time you have had a drink at the airport…it was probably while waiting for a connection in Charlotte or O’Hare (truth be told, Philadelphia is a great airport to get boozy in). In Syracuse, you either have an early morning flight or you are landing, and how often do people stay at the airport after landing for drinks? Neveish?

So, I digress. Once again, Syracuse proves itself to be Syracuse. It had a chance to be special and do something good by turning travelers on to a local food choice. Instead, it took the sterile, antiseptic route and chose below-grade coffee and food.

This is how we end up with highway viaducts, shopping malls that don’t pay taxes and baseball stadiums ignored by everyone.

At least when it comes to bad decisions we are nothing if not consistent.

##

Updated 3/26 8 a.m.:

Cafe Kubal owner Matt Godard posted a note to his company’s blog about the situation. It’s a worthy read, if for no other reason than the inside baseball that is revealed. I would draw your attention to this paragraph:

During our last few months at the airport, the quality of our product suffered. We were not permitted to train the airport employees during the transition of the concessioner’s contract. As a result, the rigorous standards we hold ourselves to were not being met. For that, I would like to apologize. Our customers deserve the best we can give them, no matter what.

That last sentence really stands out: Our customers deserve the best we can give them, no matter what. It’s a lesson out of a Peter Shankman presentation. Here is a local business owner trying to ensure a quality product with particular attention to a licensed outlet that was using his brand, and human/corporate obstacles prevented him from doing so. If the entire situation is indicative of Syracuse, then this sentence is a symbol of the entire air travel industry. Screw the customer: we can make $3.50 on that 45-cent bag of Chex Mix while at 30,000 feet. Screw the customer: make them pay $25 if they check their bag, even though wheeling it to the gate means they can probably gate check it for free. Screw the customer because margin is the priority.

For every major airline (United) that I gripe about (United) because they (United) have made travel a nightmarish (United), there is a JetBlue. What makes that airline different? It at least puts on the facade of caring about its customers. JetBlue offers some  little comforts, like chairback TVs, free baggage, and comfy seats built for regular-sized people. Sure, it has stockholders that care about margin and profit, but it has found a space where good customer service means more than just getting from point A to point B.

The problem is that like JetBlue, Cafe Kubal is not the norm. Instead of others adopting this principle, we end up with Dunkin Donuts shops on every corner and in the middle of the airport.

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4 thoughts on “Off-Topic: Coffee at the Airport ** UPDATED (3/26)**”

  1. Well written article….shame on the Hancock decision makers, they should step down from their position not for incompetence, but for being idiots…..”Can’t fix stupid”

  2. Great read! Thanks! One correction for you though… You picked on United… You really mean United Express, which is a conglomeration of about 6 other carriers of which only one (which occasionally actually flies to Syracuse) is of any real quality as an operation. And then we must not forget the station operation, which in fact is not United either. It used to be one of those conglomerates in the United Express family, but United corporate decided that the lowest bidder should win (again) and hired American Eagle to operate the United-branded flights in Syracuse beginning last May! Get that conflict of interest…

    1. Yeah, but when I book the flight at United.com, United gets my money. United makes the choice to contract with these carriers and conduct this operation. It’s like the airport. The authority chose Creative Foods, which make the choice on Cafe Kubal. By logical transference, they all stink.

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