JANESVILLE

After years of being vacant, the restaurant space at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport soon will fly again.

This time, it’ll fly with fresh-baked biscuits, cinnamon rolls and other early-bird and lunch-hour specialties, the new restaurant tenant said.

Beloit restaurant group Geronimo Hospitality Group plans this summer to open Bessie’s Diner—a new, aviation-themed breakfast and lunch restaurant in 3,600 square feet inside the airport’s terminal, 1716 W. Airport Road, off Highway 51.

A buildout is underway to turn the space into a 1950s-themed diner with a “family-friendly” theme that celebrates classic diner food and the history of flight.

It’s named after Beloit native Bessica “Bessie” Raiche, who is credited with being the first woman to fly an airplane solo.

The Rock County-owned airport had a restaurant in its terminal from the 1960s until 2013, although its ownership and occupancy changed frequently in recent years. The restaurant space has been vacant since 2013.

The Great Recession and its lingering effects put a dent in airport traffic, but in the years since, the county has invested money into the terminal. In 2016, the county finished $3.2 million in renovations to the terminal, including $70,000 in work to ready the restaurant space in hopes of luring a new tenant.

Airport officials and a Geronimo executive said they hope the restaurant will boost visits by diners who are pilots and draw new local visitors.

Jeff Whiteman, Geronimo’s chief operating officer, said his hospitality group has had its eye on the airport for years. He said the company got serious about it when it developed an aviation concept wrapped around Bessie Raiche, who in 1910 made the first female solo flight of a biplane she’d built in her yard. Raiche had no flight experience and no training.

“The airport had a long history of having a restaurant or diner on the (terminal) property. It’s something we’ve heard for many years that people missed. The location is well-placed between Beloit and Janesville, and people flying in could fly in with the purpose of having a nice meal,” Whiteman said.

Greg Cullen, the airport’s manager, said traffic has plateaued over the last year, but he believes a new restaurant will boost leisure flights into the airport.

“We get calls literally every day,” he said. “People are asking, ‘When does it open? When does it open?’ It’s good news for people.”

Cullen said officials hope to open Bessie’s in time for the Janesville Warbird Weekend, a classic warplane fly-in and show planned for July 21-22 at the airport.

Geronimo is a subsidiary of Hendricks Commercial Properties, one of several companies owned by Beloit business mogul Diane Hendricks. It owns and operates several hotels and a growing list of restaurants, including Lucy’s #7 Burger Bar and Merrill and Houston’s Steak Joint, both in downtown Beloit.

The Rock County Board agreed in February to a five-year lease deal with Geronimo. Under the agreement, Geronimo is required to pay the county a lease totaling 7 percent of its adjusted gross sales at Bessie’s. Geronimo will be charged rent only if Bessie’s sales total at least $800,000 a year.

Rock County Administrator Josh Smith said under the lease structure, the county doesn’t expect Geronimo to pay rent for the first year or two. He said the agreement is designed to give Bessie’s a chance to get established and pay down its custom buildout.

“We recognized that it would take a new restaurant some time to become established, attract a customer base and recoup its investment, and this structure allows them to have success before paying the county,” Smith said. “In the long run, the county does not benefit if we require too much up front and it causes a restaurant to close.”

Smith said even without an initial rent payout, the airport could benefit from increased fuel sales based on more people flying in to eat at Bessie’s.

Whiteman said Bessie’s will serve all-day breakfast and lunch, with specials such as a Monte Cristo sandwich—a ham, turkey and Swiss cheese melt fried between French toast slices and topped with powdered sugar.

According to Bessie’s web page, the restaurant will feature a specialty bloody mary bar.

“We’d offer classic breakfast dishes with some different twists on eggs Benedict items,” Whiteman said.

“Plus we’d make our own biscuits and cinnamon rolls. This is what you’d have expected to find with a diner 30, 40, 50 years ago.”

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