Before Parmod Sharma opened J&A’s Bar at John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport, there was nowhere in the terminal to have a beer. Passengers would go through security to find themselves in a large waiting room with a limited-service Tim Hortons kiosk serving doughnuts and coffee, a duty-free store and a convenience store. “People were actually saying, ‘I need a drink,'” said Mr. Sharma, the former duty-free manager.
After hearing that refrain enough, he struck out on his own in July, 2014, opening J&A’s Bar. The cafeteria-style establishment sells drinks, chicken fingers, prepared sandwiches, hot dogs, fries and pizza slices he orders daily from Pizza Pizza. Business was slow for the first few years as the airport was still finding its stride – sometimes he only made $3,000 in sales in a month. “I struggled along because I knew someday it would become worth it,” he said.
These days, he employs six people in addition to his two teenage children, because of an increase in flights from airlines including Swoop, Norwegian and WestJet. Passenger traffic at the airport rose 118 per cent between 2016 and 2018, with cargo traffic increasing by 20 per cent in that time – John C. Munro handles the most overnight express cargo of any airport in Canada. Direct and indirect employment related to the airport has increased 25 per cent in four years, to about 3,450, according to an economic impact study commissioned by the airport.
“We used to close customs and duty-free in the summer,” the airport’s senior co-ordinator of marketing and communications, Tomas Cleary, said on a walk through the compact facility. “In previous years, we’d hold staff meetings in international arrivals because we had no passengers.”
The extra foot traffic has put pressure on the airport to offer more food and drink options, says Dina Carlucci, its director of marketing and communications. But instead of going with a food-service conglomerate such as HMSHost, which operates dozens of locally branded restaurants in Toronto’s Pearson airport, Ms. Carlucci sought out the local brands themselves to bring Hamilton’s upstart vibe to the airport. “In the airport business, we call it ‘sense of place,'” she said. “We want you to feel Hamilton while you’re here.”
This fall, two new cafés built inside shipping containers will open at the airport, one on either side of the screening checkpoint. Branded Detour YHM (YHM is the Hamilton airport’s international designation), the cafés will be operated by Dundas, Ont.-based Detour Coffee Roasters, with offerings sourced from other Hamilton small businesses, including Collective Arts Brewing. Max Daviau, vice-president of retail for Detour, says the cafes will sell sandwiches, soup, salads and breakfast. Detour’s parent company, New Skew, also owns Dear Grain bakery and Royal Canadian Mead, all of which will be available, as well.
Mr. Daviau says he’s not surprised the airport chose local businesses over partnering with a major chain – while sourcing suppliers locally can be difficult, it’s easier to ensure quality, he said. “Ten to 12 years ago, consumers only expected to have a good meal in certain settings. Now, people want high-quality food options no matter where they go.”
He sees the partnership as an opportunity to create a stronger association between Hamilton and the Detour brand. “We will be the first and last things people see when they enter and exit Hamilton,” he said, adding the café will also sell bagged coffee beans, good for last-minute gifts. “We want to cement our place in the local food scene.”
While the Detour brand is a good fit for a wayside stop at the airport, so is the shipping-container aesthetic – a nod at the cargo traffic – says Jason Cassis, whose Hamilton-based Equal Parts Hospitality brokered the deal and is managing the branding and launch. Equal Parts recently helped launch a shipping-container-based beer garden at McMaster Innovation Park in the city’s west end.
Mr. Cassis pointed out that the rapid expansion at John C. Munro means there could be renovations in the near future, so a more permanent restaurant setup might not be practical. “Being able to take [the container cafes] apart and reconfigure them makes a lot of sense,” he said.
Once in operation, Detour will pay a percentage of sales to Equal Parts and has a similar arrangement with the airport, in lieu of fixed rent.
Ms. Carlucci says the airport’s owner, Vantage Airport Group, which owns three other Canadian airports, in Moncton, N.B., and the B.C. communities of Kamloops and Fort St. John, believes in supporting local commerce. Some of the company’s airports have mandated minimums for local businesses within the terminals, she said.
The Hamilton airport’s recent success has also extended to businesses beyond the terminal building. Nearby KF Aerospace is undergoing a $30-million expansion of its aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul facility at the airport, with a plan to expand its Hamilton staff of 150 staff to 425 over the next four years.
All of this change has left Mr. Sharma wondering about the future. After waiting five years for the airport to boom, he’s hopeful that the added foot traffic can continue to support his business and the new ones. “Where do I stand when this comes in? At least, when it’s slow, I’ll know what to expect.”