Dining At IAH: How Houston Restaurant Brands And Food Are Kept On-Point

Hugo's Cochina bar

The dining scene at George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) has undergone some exciting changes over the past few years, with local restaurants replacing generic kiosks and national chains. Still, how these places are run is a little different. Rather than being operated by the restaurateur or chef, the restaurants are actually managed by a third party that has a contract with the airport to provide food and beverage services. Curious, I arranged a visit with one of these businesses, HMSHost, to see how it ensures the airport eateries stay true to the beloved originals.

HMSHost operates the airport outposts of Ray’s BBQ Shack (both in Terminal B), Hugo’s Cocina (a spinoff of chef Hugo Ortega’s interior Mexican restaurant in the Montrose in Terminal D), Landry’s Seafood (Terminal C), Cadillac Bar (Terminal A) and The Breakfast Klub Express (Terminal A—another operator runs more full-fledged version of The Breakfast Klub in a different location). In addition, the company operates the IAH location of El Real Tex-Mex and 3rd Bar Oyster & Eating House, a spinoff of Reef. They also manage other places that do not have roots in Houston, such as several spacious Starbucks stores and Blaze Pizza, which was founded in Pasadena, California. A full list of HMSHost’s locations is available online.

The IAH location of Ray’s BBQ has a real wood smoker and even uses the same wood as the original. Photo by Phaedra Cook

My tour guide was Mark Young, HMSHost’s senior director of operations, whose job includes really understanding the originals. “We spent a lot of time going to the street-side locations,” said Young. “I’m the local guy. I’m the one responsible for the day-to-day here so I was very involved in going out and experiencing the brand locally to get the feel, the culture. ‘What’s this Ray’s BBQ all about?’ You need to know that if you’re going to sell that image to our guests.”

When Young talks about details, he sounds as meticulous about them as a chef or owner would. “I’m passionate about it,” he explained. “We’re very respectful of what the local brands bring to the table. We have to be.”

A case in point: the El Real Tex-Mex kiosk is slated for more exterior work. Young’s not satisfied with the overhead sign and doesn’t think the white neon lettering on a gray background accurately reflects the flashy, colorful old Tower theater marquee at the original. “It just didn’t capture the design element. We weren’t happy with it,” said Young. However, other design elements in-place, such as the beige brickwork, red logo sign and black-and-white tile installed under the counter, head in the right direction.

3rd Bar IAH
Gulf Coast-themed restaurant 3rd Bar Oyster & Eating House at IAH Photo courtesy of HMSHost

We spoke with chef Bryan Caswell about what it’s like to work with a third-party operator while preserving the integrity of the food and the brand. Caswell is a partner in Reef with Bill Floyd, and both are partners with writer and food historian Robb Walsh in El Real Tex-Mex. “There are a lot of different ways that it is done,” Caswell explained. “Sometimes a company says, ‘Alright, we’re going to use your name only in the beginning. It’s going to be a concept that we own. You’re going to work for three years. We’re going to pay you a static amount of money and then we’re going to slowly phase you out. HMSHost was like, ‘Well, it’s a longer contract, you get money based on sales. There are incentives and you help run it.’ That really was important to me. HMS is a great partner in that they understood certain things that make each concept unique and it is those unique things that are why they are doing that project.”

Young recognizes it’s the details that are absolutely essential to getting it right, as well as establishing a good comfort level for the chefs and restaurateurs. For example, Ray’s BBQ Shack has an honest-to-goodness wood-fired smoker. “We wouldn’t have been able to pull it off unless we had a smoker,” said Young. “We buy the wood for the smoker from [Ray’s] vendor out on the street. We can’t buy the wood from just any vendor out there. We have to get it from his who he’s been dealing with for years. He has a special kind of wood that Ray is very comfortable with. It gets that flavor profile that he’s looking for. Those were some of the non-negotiables. We love that, because that is the story that makes the brand.”

The workers are HMSHost employees. However, before they set foot in the airport locations, they are required to go work and train a few weeks at the originals. “In the beginning, I don’t need them to know about how HMSHost operates. They’ll get that later. I need them to learn how Hugo’s operates, for example.” Young explained.

Caswell described how the process worked for 3rd Bar and his personal involvement. “For the 3rd Bar concept, we had cooks and managers [at Reef] for a month-and-a-half. They worked stations and became cogs in the machine. From there, we developed the recipes. Most of those were from Reef but a few had to be tweaked for the airport. Then we went over there and opened it together. I helped them open it.”

Hugo's Cochina
Angled ceiling accents at Hugo’s Cocina mirror the similarly shaped bar. Photo by Phaedra Cook

The process worked similarly for Hugo’s, but owner Tracy Vaught says it is not free of challenges. “HMS Host sent managers to us to train in the restaurant. That helped them understand our methods and culture,” she said. However, the airport environment is a challenge. The size of the kitchen is small, there is not as much storage and prep space as we are used to and hiring qualified employees is difficult. Customers come all at once in droves when there are flights and there are times when not many people are around. We are working through all of this and getting to understand how to do business in the airport. We feel very fortunate to have this opportunity.”

Similar to 3rd Bar’s brightly lit, open concept, Hugo’s Cocina is also spacious and features a huge, angular bar area. It’s a modern design that is in some ways more reminiscent of Ortega’s newer restaurants, Caracol and Xochi.

Menu development for an airport restaurant means offering a subset or different versions of what the original offers. Unlike visiting a brick-and-mortar, diners don’t linger at airport eateries unless there’s a flight delay. Most are in a hurry to catch a flight. That means meals need to be prepared quickly—ideally in no more than 15 minutes—and be portable. For example, the menu at Hugo’s Cocina includes tacos, fish tacos, camarones (Mexican-style shrimp) and tortas. For those who can stay and relax a bit, there’s also a big selection of tequila. “It’s basically a little bit of every flavor from the street-side [location], although not exactly like the street-side menu,” said Young. “These are elements that work in our environment.”

Yet, the dishes need to good enough for the chefs to be proud of. Young says that restaurant representatives visit regularly to check the food and make sure nothing is flying off the rails. To show an example of how the food stays on-track, Young ordered the Wings & Waffle from The Breakfast Klub Express and had me try it. It’s a familiar favorite. In fact, it was number 30 on the 100 Favorite Houston Dishes list I did for the Houston Press in 2015.

The Breakfast Klub Wings & Waffle at IAH
The Wings & Waffle from The Breakfast Klub Express location is almost indistinguishable from the original, save for the Styrofoam box. Photo by Phaedra Cook

It took about 12 minutes for the staff to freshly fry the wings, make the waffle and pack the meal in a to-go box. The end result looked and tasted just right. In fact, if one of these dishes was prepared at the restaurant, another at the kiosk and immediately served side-by-side on the same plates, I don’t think anyone would know the difference.

One significant difference between the storefronts and airport locations is, in fact, a bonus: unlike the originals, most of these airport locations open at 5 a.m. and serve breakfast. So, it’s possible to get an El Real Tex-Mex breakfast taco, for example. Most stay open until 10 p.m. although Young says that Hugo’s Cocina is open from 6 a.m. until midnight since it is in Terminal D, the arrival and departure point for many international flights.

Sean Matthews, senior manager of communications and PR for HMSHost believes that, for now, the company has met its goal for new openings at IAH. However, there are multiple operators at the airport and some have a whole lot more chef-driven eateries in the works.

One thing is for sure: dining at George Bush Intercontinental airport is sure a heck of a lot better than it used to be.

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