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Lunch With D CEO: Gina Puente

The CEO of Puente Enterprises talks about her success in the world of airport concessions.

Not surprisingly, lunch with Gina Puente, airport concessionaire extraordinaire, was a fast-paced, walk-and-talk around several of her retail and dining locations at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. 

By industry standards, Puente Enterprises with its 200 employees is a Lilliputian player in a world of international giants like France-based Paradies Lagardere. She sees her organization’s size, however, as an advantage: “Because we’re a smaller company, we can get new things faster and react quicker” to customer demands and market trends.

“Millennials are asking for premium brands,” she said, so that’s what she focuses on. “Today’s airport customers want craft beer, for example. They don’t want ‘old airport food.’” Accordingly, Puente’s Sky Canyon by Stephan Pyles, the first chef-driven concept at DFW Airport, was also “the first to do craft cocktails” at the airport. Her corporate tagline reads: retail excellence/culinary distinction/Texas hospitality.

Puente, 48, has turned her father’s airport newsstand sideline into a $55 million company known for innovation and luxury in an environment not traditionally associated with either. She got famous overnight when she started the first winery and tasting room in a U.S. airport, La Bodega Winery, at DFW Airport in 1997. (That space is now Sky Canyon.)

Puente has turned her father’s airport newsstand sideline into a $55 million company known for innovation and luxury.

Today, Puente’s 16 airport concessions include newsstands, Travelex currency exchanges, and various food brands. Most are at DFW Airport, including a cereal bar and her newest food concept, Stampede 66 Express with Pyles, which serves Texas barbecue in an upscale, fast-casual setting. She also has one concession at Dallas Love Field and three at Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport. 

Puente recently beat out several of “the big boys” for two coveted newsstand locations in DFW Airport Terminal C to open next year. “I believe our pitch to up the ante on product selection and customer service was a big play to our favor,” she explained. A small yet impactful part of that bid was her promise to stock a more upscale alternative hand sanitizer. It’s all about the details, Puente adds.

Our intense cardio lunch involved meeting at Terminal D, riding Skylink (the airport light rail) to Terminal B, then to C and back to D, where we had a glass of wine at Sky Canyon Express (serving Tex-Mex), then plates of smoked brisket and chicken at Stampede 66 Express.

All along the way, Puente greeted employees by name at each location. She even stopped at a currency exchange that isn’t hers to chat with a former employee. 

Besides talking about her business, Puente shared some intriguing secrets of DFW Airport life during our cardio lunch.

  • “Airline pilots love cereal.” They are major customers at Cereality Cereal Bar and Café because it’s a light meal that doesn’t leave pilots feeling full and drowsy. 
  • Want to be among the first to know about airline schedule changes? “Get to know baggage handlers.” They are the canaries in the DFW Airport coal mine.
  • Several of her kitchens are “flameless,” because inside the airport there’s no way to vent to the outside. Food is prepared using TurboChef Ovens, “a convection/microwave on steroids,” she explained.

Puente credited DFW Executive Director Sean Donohue, who took the helm in 2013, for re-focusing concessionaires on customer service. Also, she said, the bidding process and auditing of customer service has sped up since Donohue took over, pressuring concessionaires to be more agile and responsive.

Managing retail, food service, and currency exchanges in multiple airport settings makes every day multifaceted and fast-moving. That’s one reason she does what she does: “I love the unpredictability.” As Puente said goodbye, she headed for the nearest Skylink to travel to another terminal.   

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