Miami International Airport finds itself in a hummus hullabaloo.
Two years ago, MIA requested proposals to open the airport’s first Mediterranean restaurant. Pasha’s, a popular Mediterranean chain with Miami headquarters, applied for the Terminal D lease but lost out in early 2013 to an untested concept by Ice Box, a high-end cafe best known for creating Oprah Winfrey’s favorite chocolate cake.
Now Pasha’s wants county commissioners to force MIA to reconsider, given Ice Box’s lack of a track record beyond the moussaka, lamb meatballs, falafel, couscous and other Mediterranean dishes that have appeared on the cafe’s eclectic menu through the years. Ice Box plans to create a new restaurant at MIA called The Mediterranean Kitchen.
A bid-protest hearing officer, Charles Edelstein, reluctantly ruled against Pasha’s in January. Edelstein, a retired judge, questioned why MIA wasn’t following guidelines requiring the winner to “specialize in Mediterranean food as its core mission.” Citing misguided procurement rules that forced him to reject Pasha’s protest, Edelstein declared his own decision to be “offensive” and “one of the worst” in his judicial career.
“All in all,’’ Edelstein wrote in the Jan. 13 decision, “this is not one of the County’s finest hours.”
Commissioners could take up the Pasha’s matter at the regular commission meeting Tuesday, where the restaurant’s protest of Edelstein’s ruling is on the agenda.
Ice Box argues it has plenty of experience with Mediterranean food, and that its pledge of a guaranteed rent that was nearly 80 percent higher than Pasha’s should settle the matter. “They serve Mediterranean often at their current location in Miami Beach. They’re very familiar with it,’’ said Brian May, Ice Box’s lobbyist.
Ice Box already sells food at MIA under its own name at a restaurant opened in 2010. Ice Box expects similar traffic at The Mediterranean Kitchen and based its $320,000 minimum annual rent pledge on past performance, May said.
Pasha’s offered only $180,000 in annual rent. Deputy mayor Jack Osterholt told commissioners in a March 18 memo that rent income is a key factor for MIA.
He noted that the bid’s minimum qualifications aren’t mandatory, but added that Ice Box’s Mediterranean credentials suffice. The bid language sought an operator with a “core business” cooking Mediterranean and the “lentils, fava, beans and chickpeas” that go with it. A selection committee ranked Pasha’s menu and food presentation the best, but Ice Box took the top spot once the sealed rent amounts were revealed.
“As you are aware, monies raised through concession revenue defray the landing fees paid by airlines,” Osterholt wrote. “It is therefore never in the interest of the airport to arbitrarily reject aggressive [rent pledges] proposed by concessionaires.”
The fight over a 340-square-foot restaurant kiosk adds to the pitched battle that often erupts over lucrative contracts at Florida’s busiest airport. Pasha’s, which already operates in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport, hired two lobbyists for the MIA matter and claims the contract hunt has already cost it more than $100,000.
Bidders can’t always be certain the contract will still exist even after they win. A nearby location initially designed for a pizza shop was scrapped once MIA officials determined the winning bidder might make the area smell like pizza.
Last summer, MIA’s director briefly suggested Miami-Dade scrap the Mediterranean concept entirely. Aviation chief Emilio González has since backed Ice Box’s proposal, but in June he asked Mayor Carlos Gimenez to let him toss the bid and start over. A González memo said that area of Terminal D would be better served offering “uniquely local” fare, like “empanadas, stone crab, cigars and Caribbean food.”
“Mediterranean food is not a unique Miami offering,” González wrote Gimenez in June. “I would prefer that the concept for that space be reconsidered, so that it reflects the unique nature of our community and our customers.”