O’Hare travelers to get new array of quick, touchless, around-the-clock shopping choices

Dozens of new vending machines will be installed. New phone-booth-style workspace will be available for business travelers to rent. Longtime concessionaire Hudson News also will open micro-marts using cashier-less “just walk out” technology pioneered by Amazon.

SHARE O’Hare travelers to get new array of quick, touchless, around-the-clock shopping choices
Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee talks to the media during a press conference on March 15, 2020 after additional COVID-19 screenings caused crowding at O’Hare International Airport.

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee talks to the media during a press conference on March 15, 2020 after additional COVID-19 screenings caused crowding at O’Hare International Airport.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Travelers flying in and out of O’Hare Airport will have a whole new world of quick, touchless, around-the-clock shopping choices, thanks to concession agreements advanced Thursday that will redefine vending machines.

Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee said the goal is to adapt to the “changing habits” of post-pandemic travelers.

“We needed to have more diversification in the offerings that we had. Some folks are gonna still want that sit-down restaurant. That’s what they’re gonna stick to. Others are not as comfortable and may love to use some of these alternatives. I don’t think it’s ever gonna be one-size-fits-all,” Rhee told the City Council’s Aviation Committee.

“It’s not the traditional old concessions that we’re dealing with. These are some really innovative, unique opportunities where we’re asking the marketplace, ‘You tell us. … Give us your alternatives.’”

One of the new categories of vending machines approved by the City Council’s Aviation Committee will be a salvation for parents with crying infants and cranky toddlers.

“This is so much fun. We’re gonna have diapers and wipes, sippy cups, goldfish crackers. All of the things a toddler could want,” said Amber Ritter, chief commercial officer for the Department of Aviation.

“They’ll have seven locations around the airport. … They’ll be strategically placed near the mother’s room and other areas where kids have to be changed.”

Yet another category calls for installing 10 “privacy work stations.”

“This is sort of a cubbyhole. Almost like a modern phone booth. You pay to go in. And you have the space all to yourself for a period of time. There’s a desk. There’s Wi-Fi. There’s a charging station. You can plug in to do your work if you need to get some business done or have some phone calls that are in private. These are things that are becoming very popular as people are, sort of, working in a more mobile way,” Ritter said.

In all, 91 new vending machines will be installed in 81 locations. Among the other items to be sold are over-the-counter drugs and electronics; healthy food and beverages, including freshly-cut fruit and hummus; cosmetics; and pizza.

Foot massage machines installed at 10 locations will provide an oasis for exhausted travelers prone to travel-related blood clots.

Chicago-based Nuts-on-Clark, which already has stores in four O’Hare terminals, will install vending machines offering fresh popcorn.

“There will be two flavors per machine,” said Robert Kenney, manager of stores for Nuts-on-Clark. “That popcorn is heated and air is circulated through the machine. That’s how the machine is designed. They’re gonna get fresh popcorn by the push of a button. And it’s measured for the bag by the swipe of a credit card.”

Longtime O’Hare gift shop concessionaire Hudson News will also open micro-marts featuring the cashier-less “just walk out” technology pioneered by Amazon.

Consumers will tap their credit cards upon entering the store, just as they do now with their Ventra cards upon entering the CTA. When they pick up pre-packaged food and other merchandise, their credit cards will automatically be charged. No waiting in line when you’re rushing to catch a flight.

And kiosks operated by Café Descartes Chicago will replace Starbucks in the baggage clam areas of Terminals 1, 2 and 3 to give the caffeine-deprived a jolt of local java.

In all, the 10 new leases approved Thursday are expected to generate $15 million in annual concession sales, with $6 million of that going to 13 firms that are in the Airports Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprises program. But while nine of those 13 disadvantaged businesses are African American, only two are Hispanic, and that did not sit well with Hispanic aldermen.

That’s why the vote in favor of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan was a surprisingly close 8-to-5.

“I’m not supporting this. This is abysmal for me,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus and Lightfoot’s former floor leader.

Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) said he, too, is “fed up” and “tired of hearing” about the challenges of attracting more Hispanic applicants.

“I keep on hearing this, ‘We don’t get the resumes.’ Well, I’m sorry. The resumes are out there. Whenever I put ‘em out, we get ‘em,” Rodriguez said

“To have only two Latino applicants, to me, speaks more to the process and systems than it does to those who eventually apply. We’ve got to do more. We can’t be passing the buck. I’m not gonna stand for it.”

Rhee said she “shares your frustration” with the lack of participation from Chicago’s majority minority.

“Unfortunately, we only had two Hispanic applicants and both of them were chosen. We cannot say we want X amount to go to this group or this group or this group. We really have to look at the responses we were given,” she said.

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