Masked shoppers purchase items ahead of their flight inside Long Beach Airport’s south concourse, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Neck pillows and water bottles, coffee to go or a glass of wine before boarding—as passengers return to Long Beach Airport, shops and restaurants supplying them with travel essentials and amenities are opening back up.

After months of nearly zero traffic, leading a majority of the shops and restaurants at the airport to completely close during the height of the pandemic, all but two have reopened. With hundreds of passengers boarding planes to Maui, the Bay Area and Vegas, a sense of normalcy is returning, but a labor shortage and Southwest’s takeover as the airport’s main airline spell some uncertainty for future months.

“We’re back on track,” said Kuldip Johal, general manager of dining operations at LGB with Paradies Lagardère, which runs a majority of the airport’s stores and eateries.

While Johal declined to share specific numbers on the recovery of revenue, she said they were on track with the return of passenger volumes, which were at 71% of pre-pandemic levels, according to data released by the airport in August. Prior to the pandemic, terminal concessions brought in millions of dollars, according to a 2019 economic impact study that counted $16.7 million in gross revenues in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Staff is returning as well. According to Johal, Paradies has been able to bring back 60-70% of its staff, with 55 employees currently working at its LGB businesses.

One of the biggest challenges for the restaurants managed by Paradies has been a shortage of workers, especially cooks, that has troubled the hospitality industry nationwide. To make up for the missing hands in the kitchen, the company is shifting kitchen staff between restaurants in accordance with flight schedules, and has modified its menus by removing prep-intensive items. Burgers and salads stayed, clam chowder and calamari have been temporarily suspended.

Erik Skolnik, 34, left, and Steve Herrick, 34, enjoy breakfast burriots from Taco Beach, which was shuttered through much of the pandemic, in Long Beach Airport’s open-air concourse ahead of their flight, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

“It’s tough to hire right now,” Johal said. To attract new workers, the company is currently offering referral bonuses for existing employees who bring in friends or family to join the staff.

Samantha Argosino, owner of Little Brass Cafe, one of the few passenger-serving businesses at the airport not managed by Paradies, said she’s also found it challenging to staff up once traffic began to pick up again in March, with some potential employees worried about the risk of infection.

“The airport being a hub, there’s this impression that it’s a more dangerous place,” Argosino said.

As for many businesses, the past 18 months have been a period of constant adjustment for Argosino and her husband, who co-own the cafe located in the main terminal of the airport  before the security check-in.

Argosino said the pandemic has cost her business $275,000 in lost revenues so far. In order to stay afloat, they turned the cafe into a mini grocery store and later added a retail table with specialty items, gifts and souvenirs, which she expects to become a permanent fixture.

“We got creative,” Argosino said. “That’s the spirit of a lot of business owners: It’s always going to be hard, it’s going to be harder—bring it on.”

In addition to the continued impact that emerging variants of the coronavirus may have on travel, the long term effects of JetBlue’s departure in October of last year are another factor businesses at and around the airport are watching closely.

“JetBlue brought us a lot of customers,” said Apple Alfonso, operations manager at Mani, which offers valet services at the airport. With Southwest taking over the role as Long Beach’s main airline in the middle of the pandemic, Alfonso said her company is still adjusting to the change in travel patterns that entailed.

Southwest picked up 17 slots relinquished by the New York-based JetBlue, bringing its total of allocated flights to 34. Currently, the airline is flying all 34 slots on Sundays, with weekdays averaging 24-25 flights.

Flights to and from Hawaii, currently served by Southwest and Hawaiian Airlines, are especially promising for the valet business, Alfonso said. With these routes gaining popularity as leisure travel returns, so are multi-day bookings for valet and parking services.

“People love the Long Beach Airport,” Alfonso said. “They love how easy the access is.”

Tish Stockton, general manager of Paradies’ retail operations at the airport, said she’s noticed a difference in her customers’ demeanor, especially as more leisure travelers mix in with the business crowds that made up a majority of the airport’s passengers while travel restrictions were in place.

“They’re happy to just be outside of the house,” Stockton said. Now, it’s her task to keep the airport shops stocked with the bestsellers: bottled water, peanut M&Ms and Cheez-Its. “As long as we have those three things, they’re happy,” she said, laughing.