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Airbrands opens gates to O’Hare food services


With a deep background in the retail cell phone business, John Wober has pivoted to a kind of new venture: bringing better and local food choices to an airport concourse near you.

By David Steinkraus

The COVID-19 pandemic changed many parts of society, including how airports view their food and beverage services. This shift in thinking is creating opportunities, says John. P. Wober, CEO of Airbrands, an airport food and beverage concessions company based in Chicago. 

Airbrands partners with national and local restaurant brands to expand into airport concourses where travelers arrive thirsty, hungry, and needing rejuvenation. “Having been a start-up guy from day one, I’m comfortable working alongside these brands through the concept to completion stages,” Wober said. And this is a key to his business: National brands don’t dominate the airport retail scene as they once did. 

Going local

Pandemic stresses showed that sprawling, multinational operations are not always optimal, Wober said. Small problems can spread through those organizations, like cracks in a sidewalk and disturb everything. What’s happening now at O’Hare International Airport and others is a shift to local food providers, he said. In Chicago, he added, the opportunities for future expansion are greater because of the multi-year $8.5 billion O’Hare 21 project to expand and renovate the airport.

With partners such as Bar Siena, in the West Loop, and The Dearborn, located in the theater district, Airbrands is helping to bring distinctive Chicago flavors to airport travelers who many never have time to go into the city. “We created ambassadorships for these neighborhoods and offer a glimpse into these experiences and neighborhoods,” Wober said. 

Airbrands may help a food brand or local chef by collaborating on a menu, finding a location in the airport, or assisting the brand in introduce their product as a vendor. 

Wober’s advantage is Airband’s accreditation as an airport concessionaire and a disadvantaged minority business enterprise. He said it took years to acquire that credential, and it’s necessary to enter the restricted world of airport services. However once acquired in a home state, it’s easier to extend the accreditation to other airports in other cities. 

It’s all retail

Food and beverage ventures are a newer venture for Wober, but he explained that they’re not so different from what he used to do: cell phone and consumer electronics retail.

After high school, he started in sales for MCI WorldCom, once one of the nation’s largest telephone service providers and now part of Verizon. “I got what you might consider a street MBA,” Wober says. (He later picked up a bachelor’s degree from Excelsior University and an advanced business certification from Harvard.) 

MCI was huge, and he learned how to navigate a multinational bureaucracy. In the wake of the dot-com crash of 2000 and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he was laid off. “I had all the knowledge from working at a Fortune 5 com pany. Unfortunately, my team also was also let go,” he said. 

So he started a chain of retail stores selling cell phones and accessories under AT&T’s brand. His team from MCI became his new sales team, and everyone was employed again. AT&T eventually absorbed his stores, he said, so he did the same thing with his new company Mobility Innovation, this time selling T-Mobile equipment and services. Those stores were later acquired by a private equity company that wanted entry to the Chicago market, but not before Mobility Innovation was cited by Inc. Magazine in 2015 as part of its Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing companies. 

Free to find another direction, Wober began consulting and was asked to help some food and beverage businesses. It was easy, he said, because at base, it’s all retail work. A cell phone store in a strip mall is about the same size as a Potbelly sandwich shop, and the workforce for both is drawn from a similar demographic. Airports are like malls but with the airlines serving as the anchor service, he said.

Airbrands’ business, and the business of its partners, is made possible by federal diversity rules and their mandate to expand opportunities, Wober said. For the next few years, he said, his focus will be on building his brand at O’Hare and looking for opportunities at other airports in other cities. It could be a business for his children, he said, and it’s a big step for a first-generation Argentine-American whose parents could not have dreamed of doing such municipal contracting work in South America because the system rejects outsiders. Here, the rules are different, he said, and we have a system that encourages minority-owned businesses and diversity.