Local restaurants ‘sweeten the pot’ at Sky Harbor International Airport.
Back in 2002, when Silvana Salcido Esparza and her partner, Wendy Gruber, founded their now iconic Barrio Café in Phoenix, the visionary duo earned an immediate and deserving reputation as culinary mavericks.
Gone were the flour tortillas, yellow cheese and red-sauced staples so typical of local Mexican restaurants. In their place, Esparza cooked up a lovingly crafted menu of regional Mexican dishes: chocolaty mole sauces; revelatory cochinita pibil tortas; freshly roasted chilis en Nogada; and creamy, made-from-scratch tableside guacamoles.
Esparza and Gruber weren’t sure how well their novel cuisine would be received, but in no time at all, throngs of diners lined up in front of the café waiting to snatch vacant tables.
Several years later, tapping that same maverick spirit, Esparza moved a branch of Barrio Café into Terminal Four at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport for what would turn out to be another paradigm-shifting experiment: to turn on its head the idea that airport food must be an afterthought—something to endure more than enjoy.
Many of Esparza’s loyal patrons and local foodies thought the move was misguided, even crazy.
Now, some five years after the fact, Esparza’s airport gamble appears to have paid off in spades. Barrio Café is an oasis of appetizing Mexican dishes that kick the quality quotient into the stratosphere miles above such typically blasé food court fare, and the 140-seat way station is often packed with hungry travelers.
“Business is fabulous,” Esparza says. “Since we opened it’s been one of the top restaurants at the airport.”
As it turns out, Esparza wasn’t flying solo in her Sky Harbor venture. A year or so before she opened at the airport, she was contacted by HMSHost, the food service company that contracts with Sky Harbor to manage food and restaurants available to travelers. The company had a vision to improve its offerings by inviting independent, top-quality restaurateurs and chefs to open satellite eateries in bustling terminals. Among others, Esparza and Barrio Café were top of mind for their plans. At first, Esparza resisted their offer.
“When I was first approached, the idea sounded too much like ‘selling out’ for me and we said no,” she explains. “But they came back to us and agreed to give me the liberty to go to the airport and oversee the operation—and, most importantly, oversee the food at the commissary. Once we came to those terms, I realized that it was something that was attractive to me.”
Esparza’s conditions for the arrangement coalesced from two potentially deal-breaking requests she made of HMSHost.
“I told them I absolutely had to have two things: a lot of tequila and a mural out front. We got both, which showed me they were serious about wanting to represent my brand.”
Esparza’s Barrio Café isn’t the only prime Phoenix-metro-area restaurant to set up shop at Sky Harbor. Terminal Four is now home to such local eateries as Sauce, La Grande Orange, Cowboy Ciao, Olive & Ivy, and many others.
“We’re extremely proud of the outstanding range and quality of restaurants we’ve brought to
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport,” says Steve Johnson, executive vice president of business development at HMSHost. “The participation from local restaurateurs and chefs has really helped transform this terminal into one of the most diverse airport dining venues in the country.”
Story by Bruce Farr
Photo by Mark Lipczynski