By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"And what if someone gets hurt out here? That costs money too," Aranza says. "The mayor, as smart as he is, as many construction projects as he's done, he's wrong about his assumptions about this business."
Two steps at a time, Aranza rushes back upstairs. Settling in his office for an interview, he's hit with the million-dollar question: If he's truly the best choice as the food and beverage operator for about half of the space at Love Field, why not prove it in the bidding process?
His short answer: "I'm not trying to impugn city staff, but the process isn't always fair."
Aranza opens the door to a conference room where several bookcases are filled with dozens of binders containing his company's bid proposals for airports and other venues across the country—each one cost him somewhere around $100,000 to put together.
Here comes the long answer.
Snickering as he grabs his 1997 proposal for Little Rock National Airport, he says, "Somebody at the Little Rock newspaper saw what was happening. They saw that staff picked me, and then they saw politics get involved."
Sure enough, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette printed a June 22, 1997, editorial questioning the airport commission's selection of Host Marriott (now HMSHost), which Aranza replaced at Love Field, as opposed to Aranza, who had been the choice of the airport manager and its consultant.
He also targeted Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in '97, even securing famed former University of Texas running back Earl Campbell as a partner. After their presentation, which included brands such as Chili's, Whataburger and Whole Foods, Aranza says there were no questions from anyone after a "punch to the gut" from a city staffer who, Aranza claims, said, "I don't like Whataburger, and I like Texas Tech."
Aranza apparently couldn't catch a break in '97. He claims favoritism cost him a contract at Southwest Florida International Airport after receiving a perfect score in the bidding process, and he also lost a proposal that year at Tucson International Airport. "It irks me the most because I got called the night before saying they were going to award it to me," he says.
Despite his belief that the bidding process isn't always fair, Aranza agrees that he's lost bids legitimately and doesn't have hard-luck stories for most of the binders on his wall. The 2003 proposal for Tulsa International Airport with former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer as his pitchman? "I don't know what happened," Aranza says. "I have no insight."
But he contends that the notion he should bid for space he has occupied and has improved is like suggesting NorthPark Center should request bids for the space filled by Neiman Marcus. "What it comes down to is, would you get rid of a good tenant?"
Before Aranza wrestled the food and beverage contract from heavyweight HMSHost and opened chains like Chili's Too and Pizza Hut at Love Field in 1996, the food options were entirely non-branded. The contract had been in the same hands for 37 years, although HMSHost purchased the original concessionaire, Dobbs House, in 1992. Aranza claims there were numerous complaints about horrible service, filthy environment and exorbitant prices.
By bringing in national brands, slashing prices and focusing on customer service, Aranza says he was able to increase revenues by 150 percent with the same passenger base. Love Field was named the top small airport for customer satisfaction in 2006 and 2008 by J.D. Power and Associates and was recognized in 2009 by Airport Revenue News as having the best customer service among small airports.
"He's a smart guy who created a company that's wholly minority owned, and he's able to compete on a level that normally you don't see minorities competing in," says council member Steve Salazar. "And he's been very consistent throughout the years."
Aranza's path from the poor son of a World War II veteran to Harvard-educated lawyer to concessionaire began in an unincorporated part of Houston, just south of George Bush Intercontinental Airport near Aldine, which he refers to as "prairie land."
Aranza's father suffered nerve damage to his knees and wrist in northern France six days after D-Day, limiting his ability to obtain a job when he came home. Aranza and his five siblings bathed outside and used an outhouse, and his mother supported them by cleaning houses and making clothes during his father's 21 years of unemployment until he finally received full disability benefits in 1965.
"We were poor but relatively happy," Aranza says.
He nabbed his first job in the summer of 1969 following his sophomore year in high school, lugging shingles up and down a ladder for a roofing company. He held the job less than a month when he learned about the June 1 opening of Houston Intercontinental Airport, which would be renamed after President George H.W. Bush in 1997.
Aranza became a janitor for Dobbs House—a top concession company at the time—working the night shift and logging a staggering 100 hours per week. "I got really good at what I did—cleaning toilets, cleaning the floors," he says.
One night around 2 a.m., his boss saw him with his hands in his pockets. After Aranza assured him that he had already completed his duties for the night, his boss told him that he wouldn't be paid unless he found something to do.