SSP America, Vice President of Commercial, Josh Barone
SSP America brands themselves as “The Food Travel Experts.” They believe every airport has a culinary story to tell of the cities they serve. So, what they do, is team up with a city’s restaurant leaders and bring these authentic local flavors to life at airports.
We talked with Josh Barone, Vice President/Commercial at SSP about everything from what he calls the “premiumization” of travelers to how his wine program works.
I’ve been with SSP for a little over 6.5 years and was hired to build the commercial team.
My team is responsible for everything from the beverage program to pricing strategy to working with culinary on optimizing food menus to business analytics.
Prior to SSP I was with a major competitor for 5 years, which is where I had all of my initial restaurant experience in airports.
I was lucky to be able to work on a big variety of projects and initiatives including beverage analytics and growing adult beverage sales, product and menu testing, menu optimization with the culinary team, centralizing pricing, merchandising and sustainability initiatives.
And yes, you are right. Prior to HMS Host, I worked in operations and as a financial analyst for UPS.
Business analytics are not my forte. So, let’s talk wine. How do you decide which wines are best for your concepts?
Love that you’ve got that down to a science. What have you learned about your clientele and does it dictate your beverage decision making?
That makes sense. Do you find that people order different wines in different cities? Different regions?
Yes, people order different wines in different cities/regions, but at least part of that is because our menus vary a good bit between different parts of the country and different concepts even within the same airport.
Our motto is “We are passionate about bringing cool, authentic restaurants to airports that reflect a taste of place”, so bringing a “taste of place” to our wine program is something that’s important to us along with designing a wine menu that works well for each individual concept.
I would love to know more! Can you expand on this motto for us?
If you visit one our restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, the majority of the wines are going to be from Washington and Oregon.
In fact, we have a wine bar called Vyne at SeaTac where it’s entirely Washington wines where you can taste through all of the different AVAs and the broad range of varietals that are grown throughout the state.
That’s really cool! How about wine trends? Can you tell us how they work for you?
We consistently do really well everywhere with Prosecco. Malbec and Pinot Grigio have been big sellers in a lot of our markets too, but Chardonnay, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are usually the biggest selling varietals for the majority of our wine lists.
We don’t have a set time period because we are consistently looking at sales for what’s working and what’s not, and we are having regular conversations with our wine partners for what they are seeing for new opportunities and trends, so it’s more our lists are always evolving vs. every 6 months or annually we are going through and re-doing wine lists.
The two biggest things that we’ve seen pretty much across the board in our beverage program is a push toward premiumization and local.
That has allowed us to continue to grow our sales of higher end wines by the glass and depending on the concept and market we’ve even been able to drop our entry/house wine pour.
From a local perspective, if there is an established wine region within the market, we will look at bringing that in too (e.g. Finger Lakes Riesling at Rochester’s airport, Arizona wines in Phoenix, etc.)
Ooh. Yum. Do you have a favorite wine wine that you would like everyone to try?
Yes! How are wine sales going? What percent of your beverage business is wine sales?
Historically it’s been around 20% for total company but varies a good bit from concept to concept.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I enjoy taking an idea or strategy all the way through to implementation and seeing the impact on our business and hopefully the improved experience of our guests.
Did you always want to work in the beverage industry? Or did you dream about being a movie star? Or maybe a pilot?
I love working in food and beverage. However, I’ve always had an interest in music, so something in the music industry could be fun too.
There was a brief period in undergrad where I considered changing my major to marine biology with the sole motivation being to be able to always live in areas with access to surfing.
Luckily, I decided that would be a bad idea because I’m pretty sure I would be a terrible marine biologist.
Hahaha! Not a lot of analytics or culinary creativity in marine biology. What’s your first memory of wine?
I had a summer semester in Aix-en-Provence in undergrad and remember going to the cafes drinking cheap carafes of really good local wines.
Yes. With a fresh baguette and local cheese. And speaking of food and wine…do you have a favorite food & wine pairing?
Sushi Taku in Tokyo has a sommelier that pairs their sushi courses with wine instead of saké, and a nice glass of Burgundy plus the best sushi I’ve ever had has been one of my favorite pairings and definitely one of my favorite restaurant experiences.
Wow! Sounds amazing. I love sushi and saké but a stunning Burgundy is very intriguing. Thanks so much for your time.