Donata Russell Major grew up in the concessions business. Her father, Herman J. Russell, founded Atlanta-based Concessions International in 1979, and in February, Major took over as chief executive from him.
The company — which franchises and licenses brands at 40 locations in seven airports, and whose portfolio includes Fresh To Order, Heidi’s Brooklyn Deli, Panda Express and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory — has big plans for 2013 and beyond, Major told Nation’s Restaurant News.
“We are anticipating a banner year, as we will be opening a record number of locations in major airports across the country, including Dallas–Fort Worth, Atlanta and Miami International,” she said in a statement. “We’re also working very hard to bring new and exciting concepts to the customers we serve in keeping with our goal of showcasing the local flavor of the cities where we do business.”
Major spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about her new role at Concessions International, as well as how business is faring for airport concessions.
Why did you decide to take the CEO position?
My father started the company back in 1979, and I joined the company several years out of college. I worked for another Fortune 500 company for several years and then came back to work for the family. It was just a great fit for me. I’ve grown up in the business — at one point I was president of concessions.
About eight years ago, I started running our company’s foundation, the Herman J. Russell Foundation. I was also vice chairman of concessions during that time, and in the past couple of years I’ve gotten more involved in concessions again. [As CEO], it’s a more daily, hands-on involvement now.
As CEO, what would you like to accomplish in 2013 and beyond?
We are really focused on growing our business in the markets where we are. We currently are in eight airports across the nation. My focus is to really build strong relationships, look for new opportunities, and then to work with our staff and to make sure that we’re focused on developing and giving everyone all the tools and support that they need.
I also want to really to build stronger relationships with the brands that we operate. I’m spending more time with our brand partners and our airport partners. It’s all about reconnecting.
How does Concessions International select which brands to franchise and license for airports? What makes a brand a good fit?
Generally, what happens is that the airport itself does a demographics survey. They survey passengers to see what is it that their local market wants. When an RFP comes out about an opportunity, it usually designates what category of food they want in each space.
Generally, every RFP has criteria that they want. We try to meet that criteria. There’s really sort of a comprehensive process that we go to based on the objectives of the airport.
What projects are in the works?
We are in the process of building out locations in the Atlanta airport on Concourse B.
We just opened a new Einstein Bros. Bagels in Terminal A at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. We’re also looking at some new locations for the Denver Airport, and we have a Wetzel’s Pretzels there that’s in development. We just opened a Fresh to Order at the Atlanta Airport, and there’s a new Willy’s Mexicana Grill opened right next door.
We’re also working with Tom Catherall, who is a well-known chef here in Atlanta. He’s developing a gourmet burger boutique and bar for us called Fly Burger Bar Boutique. That will open toward the end of this year.
How is business today for the airport concessions industry?
In the airport concessions business, there definitely are airports where traffic is down. Fortunately, we have some flat growth in some markets. But there are other smaller and midsize airports that support business. Luckily, customers still pick up a snack before getting on a flight. People still stop and eat.
Overall, revenue is up for both airports and concessionaires in most of the larger markets, say, the top 20 airports in the nation.
What challenges does Concessions International face in 2013?
Really, our biggest challenge is just staying ahead of the curve. Because we are a family-owned business, and very much focused on having a personal relationship with the airports, it requires us to travel and meet the people in those airports where we serve and develop. It’s important for our clients to know us and trust us. Our business is really based on relationship building. It’s not necessarily a challenge, but it does require time on our part.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 25, 2013 This story has been updated with the correct number of airports where Concessions International franchises and licenses brands. It is seven airports.