Two iconic San Jose restaurants forced out of airport

In an effort to freshen up the look and feel of San Jose’s airport, airport leaders are proposing drastic changes to its restaurants — but the move will push out two of San Jose’s most iconic and beloved establishments.

If San Jose elected leaders approve the changes at the City Council next week, travelers will have to say goodbye to San Jose Joe’s, an extension of “Original Joe’s” — a San Jose staple for the last 62 years. The Brit, an extension of Britannia Arms, another downtown San Jose icon, will also be forced to leave the city airport.

Nearly half of the Mineta San Jose International Airport’s 30 current restaurants will be transformed into new brands under the proposal.

But the owner of San Jose Joe’s is not going down without a fight. The changes have spurred a dispute between airport officials and Brad Rocca, the restaurant’s owner, after evaluators proposed terminating a contract with the signature restaurant after nine years at the airport.

“We are disappointed with our group not being picked and it’s going to be disappointing to the public,” Rocca told San José Spotlight on Tuesday. “We’re confused as to how such a big decision was made within 24 hours.”

The move comes after one of the airport’s leading operators’ contract — Pacific Gateway Concessions — expires in 2020, opening up 14 spaces to bidders.

“It’s important for city and airport staff to offer a mix of local, regional and national concepts and brands that appeal to our customer base. I think you can tell from the panel’s recommendation that we will clearly meet this goal,” said Rosemary Barnes, a spokesperson for the airport. “The local element is still there with what’s being proposed and it’s a great opportunity to share new experiences, tastes and flavors.”

The winners

The airport received 17 proposals from ten companies during the bidding process. Evaluators from two panels chose winners for three contracts or “packages.”

Each package awards an amount of commercial space and an allowed number of locations to a company.

The panel’s selections for each of the “packages” included SSP America Inc. for the first and largest package that awards 12 restaurants to the group, Elevate Gourmet Brands-SJC Group that awards 1,166 square feet of commercial space, and WSE Group Inc that awards 866 square feet of space. The contract will last 15 years with an option for a potential five year renewal.

According to a city report, SSP America Inc. will open restaurants that reflect “Silicon Valley’s diverse and innovative culinary landscape,” blending local and national brands. Their airport concepts will include local businesses such as Olla Cocina by Mexican chef Armando Navarro, California Market by Chef David Kinch, and the San Pedro Square Market, co-owned by former Mayor Tom McEnery, which will include five “eclectic” businesses.

Elevate Gourmet Brands-SJC Group will include its restaurant “San Jose Mac+Cheese Kitchen” and WSE Group will include “Dish n Dash,” a Middle Eastern fast casual joint that already has six locations across the South Bay.

An unfair bidding process?

But not everyone is convinced that the decision-making process was fair and some questioned its legitimacy.

“It’s not designed to have local businesses just by definition of the process,” John Conway, a partner at Britannia Arms and its extension The Brit at the airport, told San José Spotlight.

Conway said that small businesses can’t compete unless they “jump on board” with a large company such as SSP America Inc. — making the process difficult from the start. The companies can cause problems for small businesses like his, Conway added, because of mismanagement and disorganized practices.

“We found ourselves on the outside looking in,” said Conway. “They structured the new deal so that it’s 15 years with a five year option, so all of a sudden it’s more economically feasible. Now that the deal is structured a little more favorably — we’re on the outs.”

Conway said The Brit and San Jose Joe’s have been the “number-one grossing businesses” at the airport for nearly ten years, which made it more of a surprise when they were told they’re getting the boot.

“All of us connected with this proposal were extremely excited at the chance to establish Mineta San Jose International Airport as a premier food and beverage airport,” Rocca wrote in a letter to city officials obtained by San José Spotlight. “San Jose Joe’s was going to move to a new, bigger space, with a completely new interior, and because of increased kitchen size, a new expanded menu was being created with more of our favorite items from our beloved downtown location. Gross sales would have increased dramatically.”

Rocca also expressed concern that the winning bidder, SSP America Inc., is from Europe, whereas his restaurant is part of a locally-based company. He said it’s troubling that a local enterprise was passed over.

“How wasn’t that enough of a reason to pick this group,” he added. “It’s unfortunate that they didn’t pick our proposal package. I thought it was the better of the two — but we still have a chance, maybe Joe’s will be lucky.”

Next steps

Rocca hopes city officials will investigate the hastiness of the airport’s bidding process after hearing “whispers” that the evaluators’ decision might have been influenced by powerful political and business interests. “Although I do not have the information, the accusations seem plausible, considering the hurry-up-and-decide position the airport has put the city council in,” he said.

But Barnes disagrees, saying that the process was “thorough and competitive.” San Jose Joe’s happens to be one of the brands slated for replacement, Barnes added, but it’s “typical for airports to refresh its look, tastes, and flavors.”

The evaluators weighed specific criteria before selecting winners, including creativity and appeal of concepts that reflect “the look and feel” of Silicon Valley. They also looked for a mix of casual and fine dining businesses, an array of foods that represent trends, environmentally-friendly business standards and compliance with the airport’s living wage and prevailing wage policies.

Airport leaders said the new contracts will provide a $3.3 million in minimum guaranteed revenue every year and an expected $47 million of guaranteed revenue to the airport in the next ten years — a nearly 20 percent increase from current profits.

The City Council will vote Tuesday to either award the new contracts as recommended by airport staff or reject the recommendations — resulting in a closure of 14 existing restaurants and the loss of $47 million in expected revenue over the 15 year period. The council can reissue the request for proposals with different terms and conditions, if councilmembers agree that the process was not “well administered, fair or transparent.” 

“The Britannia Arms and San Jose Joe’s — those are iconic businesses in downtown San Jose,” said Conway. “You can’t get more sense-of-place in downtown than those businesses.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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