Insiders hoping to land Midway food concession deal

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Midway manager Erin O’Donnell shows Mayor Rahm Emanuel the layout of new concessions, more security entrances and parking spaces at Midway Airport in August. File Photo. (Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times)

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You’re far from the only one who’s getting plumper when you stop to get a bite before boarding a flight at Chicago’s airports.

Many members of the city’s political class long have found a favorite, deeply lucrative feeding trough in operating airport concessions.

Now, there’s a new scramble going on for the rights to belly up to the Midway money buffet. And a long line of players with close ties to Mayor Rahm Emanuel is hoping to dine sumptuously, according to bid documents I obtained.

The documents show one of the teams bidding to revamp the airport’s restaurant and retail offerings is known as Midway Partnership and includes these familiar faces at City Hall among its partners:

  •      Becky Carroll, the longtime Emanuel ally who leads the mayor’s Chicago Forward political-action committee, which spent millions of dollars in last year’s city election campaigns. She was the top spokeswoman for Chicago Public Schools.
  •     Martin Cabrera, who has led the Chicago Plan Commission and City Colleges of Chicago board for Emanuel and who’s a mayoral appointee to the city-county agency that oversees public building projects. His Cabrera Capital Markets is often involved in underwriting public bond deals.
  •    Geneva Rand, a relative of Timothy Rand, the biggest concessionaire at Midway, with 2014 revenues of more than $30 million. Timothy Rand’s company successfully sued to avoid paying property taxes on his Midway restaurants, the Better Government Association recently reported in the Chicago Sun-Times.

The lobbyists for that bid team are John Borovicka, who served as Emanuel’s district director when he was a congressman, and John Dunn, once a top aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Emanuel’s 2011 re-election campaign manager, Mike Ruemmler, also has worked as a consultant for the Midway Partnership bid team, sources told me.

And city records show Brad O’Halloran — who resigned as Metra board chairman amid a 2013 scandal over severance pay for the transit agency’s CEO — attended a pre-proposal meeting in September. He signed in as a consultant to a company that’s part of the Midway Partnership team.

For 12 years when Daley was mayor, O’Halloran and top Daley political adviser Jeremiah Joyce were partners in a concessions deal at O’Hare’s international terminal.


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Virginia-based SSP America and New Jersey’s Hudson Group are leading the Midway Partnership effort. A spokeswoman described them as “the world’s largest food and beverage operator and the world’s largest travel retailer.”

“The local leaders included in our proposal, along with the substantial number of local brands, means that we have a team ready to hit the ground running,” said the spokeswoman, Lana Cramer.

The Hudson Group currently runs newsstands and retail stores at Midway.

But Midway Partnership isn’t the only bid team with clout-heavy local allies.

Mike Alvarez, a commissioner for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, and Tim Dart, brother of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, are lobbying for the joint bid of Atlanta-based Hojeij Branded Foods and Paradies Shops Inc., owned by a French company.

A third bidder, OTG Management of New York, has hired lobbyist William Filan. A former aide to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago), Filan lobbied in Springfield for the City of Chicago and also represented the company that ran the city’s red-light camera system — until the federal bribery scandal.

The Midway stakes are sky-high. Concessions at the Southwest Side airport rang up a total of about $89 million in sales in 2014.

City Hall “is committed to a fair and impartial selection process” for the new deal, an Emanuel spokesman said.

The city has hired an “independent evaluation committee” of industry experts to review the proposals, officials said. They want the evaluators to remain anonymous and their deliberations be kept private until a recommendation is made to the Aviation Department and the City Council.

Sources said the Hojeij/Paradies team promises to serve up the food of Piccolo Sogno, Rockit Bar & Grill, Frontera Grill and Rush 34, a restaurant to be owned jointly by Walter Payton’s son, Jarrett, and the Bears.

The Midway Partnership team includes Calvin Klein, Billy Goat Tavern, Intelligentsia Coffee and a Cooper’s Hawk wine bar, according to their bid documents.

Also in the Midway Partnership lineup is a classic Chicago political hangout: Schaller’s Pump. It has been open since 1881 in Bridgeport, across the street from the offices of the Daley family’s 11th Ward Regular Democratic Organization.

No matter what the rest of us will be able to eat while waiting to board, chances are somebody who’s gorged on public deals before will get their fill again at Midway for many years to come.

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