Clark County businesses adapt to new clientele, schedule at PDX

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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photoMark Matthias, Beaches Restaurant & Bar owner, says having a location at Portland International Airport has been a great marketing toll for the Vancouver-based business.

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In a mini-city where the mixed-up internal clocks of thousands of visitors wreak havoc on normal operations, two Clark County companies say they’ve figured out how to keep pace.

Beaches Restaurant and The Barbers, very different businesses, have had one thing in common since 2010: outposts at Portland International Airport. Owners say it’s taken time to adjust to the ebb and flow of people on the go and around-the-clock workers.

At The Barbers, it means more people getting that hair clipped on weekdays instead of weekends — the opposite of a typical schedule for a men’s barbershop. At Beaches, the off-kilter time schedule of passengers means hamburgers are served during morning hours.

“You could be serving as many burgers as omelettes at breakfast,” said Mark Matthias, Beaches’ owner.

The challenge of working out scheduling and staffing kinks is offset by the reward of being able to operate and profit at the high-profile airport, where retail opportunities are typically by invitation only.

It’s taken some creative marketing to get there. The Barbers offers a 20-percent discount to the approximately 10,000 employees who work at the airport complex. While Beaches works to attract airport customers, it also managed this year to pull a high school prom crowd drawn to the idea of arriving by limousine for a meal at the airport. The restaurant’s locally themed murals and quirky beach scenes undoubtedly are part of the draw.

“It’s been a lot of fun for us,” Matthias said. “Think about the number of people in Portland who don’t know we exist. It’s been great exposure to market the Vancouver restaurant.”

Don Lovell, co-owner of The Barbers with his wife, Alison, shares the sentiment. The small airport shop is great advertising for the company’s 16 neighborhood shops in the Portland metro area and Clark County, he said. ”Twenty thousand people go through the turnstiles right in front of us,” Lovell said. “We thought, ‘If we could do this well and make a profit, we could have it be a living billboard for our company.’”

Both owners said they are making a profit, and they praised the Port of Portland for solid management of the airport’s retail operations. The port considers the airport’s retail space a window through which visitors can see and experience the Portland region’s food and shopping cultures. It actively searches for a blend of local and national vendors who can serve the needs of travelers and visitors while creating a Northwest vibe.

“Our focus is on providing non-airport experiences, an authentic Portland experience for people when they come to the airport,” said Scott Kilgo, senior manager in Portland International Airport’s concession department. “We’ve seen and heard that people want an authentic experience, so we look for the best operators with best concepts.”

Kilgo said he fields many calls from vendors wanting to operate in the airport, but typically the airport instead reaches out to experienced companies like The Barbers and Beaches to offer an opportunity to operate there. “This terminal has 1.5 million square feet and only 40,000, which is less than 4 percent, is available for more than 70 concessions,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of square footage.”

Matthias and Lovell both said they had to think hard about

the port’s offers of retail space, which came during the depths of the recession, when consumer spending and air travel were on a downward slide. Lovell recalled that when Kilgo called a couple of years ago, he said he knew about The Barbers from getting his hair cut at one of their Portland locations.

“I’d never thought of it before but it was intriguing,” Lovell said. “They are fantastic people to work with. That’s what interested us.”

Lovell opened a 688-square-foot shop in July 2010 with three barbers’ chairs and four barbers, far less than his usual staffing of up to 14 barbers in neighborhood locations. The shop’s busiest hours are 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, and the shop closes at 6 p.m., two hours earlier than other locations in the chain.

So far, Lovell said, airport employees are the shop’s meal ticket. “We need more of the travelers to see us,” he said.

Beaches, which opened at the airport in July 2009, also has a strong customer base among airport employees, especially at its takeout Beach Shack. It offers quick service and a simplified all-day menu to meet the needs of travelers.

“We’ve had to learn different staffing and how to mentally prepare if there’s a (flight) delay,” Matthias said. “The flows are a little different but you just get used to them. People are just in and out quicker.”

The Port of Portland’s fee structure is designed to help businesses succeed, Kilgo said. The port sets rents at 10 percent to 14 percent of gross profits, and its leases typically run from five to 10 years. From Kilgo’s perspective, Beaches is off to a strong start. The Barbers is also strong, but faces a tougher challenge — most travelers aren’t thinking about getting a haircut at the airport, Kilgo concedes. Beaches’ lease runs through 2020 and The Barbers leases through June of 2015, with an option for a five-year extension.

Kilgo’s good news, which should help Lovell and Matthias sleep at night: “We haven’t had anybody go out of business at PDX,” he said.