By Sundra Hominik
A lot can change in seven years, even in a city like Richmond known for taking its own sweet time to evolve. Consider what’s happened at Richmond International Airport (RIC) since 2005.
The airport, operated by the Capital Region Airport Commission, has completed what Jon E. Mathiasen, CEO and President, calls “an historic infrastructural expansion and modernization program.”
Plenty of parking and a bigger terminal are great additions to RIC, but the Commission also knew that taking care of people’s appetites was an important part of the upgrade.
“The Commission wanted travelers to have a range of attractive options from known brands with an emphasis on customer service,” Mathiasen said. So part of the airport’s multimillion dollar transformation called for a huge culinary change. You can’t help but notice it. Whether you’re looking for a cold brew, a hot cup of coffee or the ever-popular cheeseburger, you now have more choices along the airport’s concourses.
The Commission teamed with Delaware North Companies (DNC), a hospitality management business that operates concessions at airports and sports and entertainment venues around the world.
DNC’s food and beverage operations at RIC are run by Cain Bassett, a native of New Orleans. Bassett, 56, ended up in Virginia in 2005 as a result of what some would consider bad luck.
“When Hurricane Katrina hit, it basically eliminated my job [at New Orleans International Airport.] We lost everything. Katrina is the reason why we’re here,” Bassett said. “What was important was that my family was intact. I never looked at us as being victims.”
DNC offered Bassett and his wife, Alesia, three relocation choices: Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles or Richmond.
“Richmond has been an excellent move,” Bassett said.
Bassett’s nearly four decades of business experience started at a New Orleans restaurant that his parents owned. He started helping out there as soon as he was old enough to reach the table tops.
He admits he didn’t always love working at his parent’s place. As a teenager, he envied other teens who didn’t have to work over a hot kitchen grill on weekends. It took Bassett years to appreciate that those hours working for his parents helped him develop a strong work ethic.
When his parents passed away, he tried running the restaurant on his own. He soon figured out that he had a lot to learn about being a successful businessman.
In his early career, Bassett learned from a master. He spent many hours alongside Al Copeland, founder of Popeyes Famous Chicken. Bassett moved through the ranks learning the restaurant business (or as he prefers to call it, “the people business”) along the way.
He had just taken a job at the New Orleans airport when Katrina hit. Bassett now lives in western Henrico. He and his wife have become empty nesters as their four children and six grandchildren now live in Maryland and New Orleans.
These days, Bassett manages the 10 food and beverage facilities that DNC owns or operates at RIC.
Applebee’s is the largest. Because it is outside the airport’s security gates, it serves travelers as well as people waiting to pick up family, friends or business associates.
The newest restaurant is the Club Level Grill on Concourse B. Bassett and DNC worked with the Commission to open the restaurant and bar, which has a sports theme, last January.
Bassett supervises about 115 employees, ages 15 to 74. He credits Copeland and Mathiasen, along with his parents, for playing roles in shaping him as a businessman. He’s determined to share that business knowledge with others.
John Ball, a 1997 Highland Springs High School graduate, has worked for DNC for 15 years. He started as a dishwasher and has moved up to his current position as food and beverage manager. He and Bassett have developed a strong relationship.
“He’s more like a father figure and a boss for me,” Ball said. “If I’m wrong, he’s says, ‘Hey, John you’re wrong,’ and if I’m right, he let’s me know I’m right. I get both sides.” Ball and Pamela Hamby , a former waitress who now manages Applebee’s while attending J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, agree that Bassett can be a tough boss.
How tough is he? He once fired one of his sons for underperforming on the job.
“[Cain] is strong when he needs to be and he gets his point across, but he’s also compassionate about your needs as an employee,” said Hamby, a Tappahannock native.
Bassett will tell you that this business is not for everyone. However, for some it can be a great career and a source for important life lessons. Bassett often teaches those lessons to young people in the Richmond area.
He speaks at Henrico County high schools and volunteers with Junior Achievement of Central Virginia, teaching first graders as well as high school students.
“By sharing his personal and professional experiences and skills with students, Cain [Bassett] is helping students see the connection between what they are learning in school and what they will need to succeed in work and life,” said Daphne Swanson, president, of Junior Achievement of Central Virginia.
Bassett jokes that he teaches young people so they’ll know how to earn money and be able to pay into the Social Security fund to cover the cost of his eventual retirement. But as you watch him interact with his young employees, you can see that he relishes his mentoring role.
When you ask him what he enjoys the most about his job, he says it’s helping people.
“[I enjoy] taking an individual with minimum skills and developing those skills, helping them become a productive part of society. I can tell you stories of people who started out as hourly cashiers and are now running million dollar restaurants. I take pride in playing a small part of that development,” he said.
Then Bassett adds that he’s simply completing the circle that started when his parents taught him “the people business.”