Joint venture creates opportunities for new entrepreneurs at RDU

vbridges@newsobserver.comMarch 17, 2014 

  • Resources

    Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program: http://1.usa.gov/1kClX1O.

    N.C. Department of Transportation: http://bit.ly/1fRWpxd.

Correction: This article incorrectly reported that Adrian Beard is 49. Beard is 39.

RALEIGH - Wearing an orange vest and white hard hat in an under-construction, dual-restaurant space in Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Adrian Beard looked around at the world he had been dreaming about for years.

Earlier this month, dining tables and chairs sat in a corner as two men measured the walls for digital menu boards at the combined Raleigh-based burger joint Char-Grill and Charlotte-based Mexican restaurant Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina, both of which are expected to open in the airport’s Terminal 1 this spring.

“It was kind of a long road that took a short time,” Beard, 39, said about the journey.

Beard said he fell in love with the idea of becoming an airport concessionaire around 2006 after he started spending more time in airports while working for Ken Weeden & Associates, a Wilmington-based aviation and transportation consulting firm.

The steady stream of travelers fascinated him, along with the idea of a captive audience.

“Airport is high risk, but high return,” Beard said.

Beard, however, knew he didn’t have a chance in the competitive market nor the money to build out a project.

“It was a dream, but I really didn’t see how I would get there,” he said.

So Beard continued to work for Ken Weeden until he was laid off in March 2010.

The loss, he said, and a pep talk from his wife, gave Beard the courage to found airport concession company Whitman May Enterprises with the goal of consulting to bring in income while he pursued opening his own concession.

“This is my opportunity to do whatever I want to,” Beard said. “Live out my dream.”

‘A good beginning’

Beard unsuccessfully sought out a healthy foods vending machine opportunity at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. He then did consulting work for P.J. Benton, owner of P.J.J.D. Enterprises, a Charlotte-based company with about 20 restaurants in five airports in North Carolina and Florida. Benton later offered Beard a full-time job.

“I am on the right path,” Beard said he told himself. “This is a good beginning.”

Beard assisted Benton with her three brands in the Charlotte airport. He oversaw shifts, organized payroll, made pizzas at Papa John’s, rolled burritos at Salsarita’s and took orders at Einstein Bros Bagels.

Benton wanted him to see exactly what he was getting into, Beard said. She peppered him with advice such as “There is no substitute for hard work,” meaning get ready for long hours; “Do less more often,” meaning make smaller batches so the food would be fresher; and “The pig is set but the hog gets slaughtered,” meaning don’t get greedy and share your successes with the community, as she did, with scholarships and other contributions.

Benton eventually started to assemble the team that would help Beard score his first airport lease at RDU with business partner Keith Haywood, whose experience in food service management includes owning Andstar and working at FDY, where he has worked for 30 years and is vice president of sales and marketing.

They teamed up to create Uptown Airport Group, a joint venture that includes Benton’s P.J.J.D., Haywood’s Andstar and Floyd Young, FDY’s founder.

“(Benton and Young) agreed to take their senior companies and mentor (Andstar and Whitman May) to gain experience in airport concessions,” Haywood said.

All four companies have been certified through the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, which helps small and minority owned firms participate in state and local projects that receive federal funding.

Haley Gentry, business and affairs director for Charlotte Douglas International Airport said Disadvantaged Business Enterprise certification is a key gateway for small businesses to get into an airport. Relationships with larger and more experienced companies are also key, particularly in situations in which established and larger concessionaire companies subcontract retail opportunities to smaller businesses.

Airport concessionaires face unique challenges, Gentry said. It’s an expensive and competitive process, in which companies pay more money to upfit a smaller space, and follow more rules that relate to receiving and pricing products and hiring practices, airport representatives in Raleigh and Charlotte said.

Ingrid Hairston, business development officer for the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority, said small-business owners can improve their chances of getting into the airport by putting together their application in anticipation of opportunities at RDU.

“Really do an honest assessment of where their strengths are and go out and look to firm up those weaknesses,” Hairston said.

Proposal wins contract

The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority released its request for proposals for the Terminal 1 renovation in November 2012. In general, the request includes specifics that generally define the concept and a company’s required level of experience.

Uptown Airport Group submitted two proposals, which included a Salsarita’s paired with a Char-Grill or a Johnny Rockets, a California-based hamburger-diner concept. Under the plan, Benton and Young would provide advice and expertise. Haywood would handle the marketing, client relations and franchise agreements, and Beard would oversee the day-to-day operations.

Uptown Airport Group ultimately won a 10-year contract, which was “huge,” Beard said.

Beard needed financing to cover his then-20 percent share of the build-out, which is expected to cost about $1 million. Haywood, who had a 10 percent share, also sought financing, he said. Benton, who had a 35 percent share, and Young, who had 35 percent share, used their own resources.

Beard started with traditional banks, which frowned on a deal centered on a restaurant with three other partners and no collateral.

“They wouldn’t touch me with a 10-foot pole,” Beard said.

Beard and Haywood eventually found assistance through The Support Center, a Raleigh community development financial institution and nonprofit that provides financing to small businesses and organizations.

On May 26, Benton died unexpectedly. Beard was devastated, he said.

Beard said he decided to move forward and use all the advice and mentoring that Benton, who was like a mother to him, had shared to prepare him for this very opportunity.

After Benton’s death, Beard worked with the other partners to move forward with the venture, which included increasing their ownership and investment.

“Everything I have is on the line for this project,” Beard said.

Beard said he hopes to open more airport outlets and give back to the community, like Benton.

“I think a part of her legacy is living through me,” Beard said.

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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