Boxoffice Pro is reviving its iconic Boxoffice Barometer readers’ poll, a popular annual feature of our magazine for decades, in which exhibitors vote on the best achievements in the industry. In this newly revamped edition of the Barometer, representatives from over 50 exhibition circuits around the world voted online to select the most important and influential contributions to the exhibition industry in 2020.
Food & Beverage Vendor of the Year: Vistar
Interview with Sean Mahoney, Senior V.P. Sales and Marketing, Vistar
Since your acquisition by Wellspring Capital Management LLC in 2002, it looks like Vistar has entered new markets. Could you give me some background on your pre-2002 history?
Vistar is a division of Performance Food Group, which traces its beginnings back to 1875. In 2002, Wellspring Capital acquired Multifoods Distribution Group and renamed it “Vistar,” setting the stage for multiple acquisitions over the past decades. In 2015, Performance Food Group announced an IPO, and PFGC has been trading on the NYSE ever since.
At what point did Vistar begin working with movie theater concessions, specifically? And how has that part of your business evolved?
Vistar began supporting the exhibitor concessions and food service space around 25 years ago, with the acquisition of Liberto Distribution. We were able to retain many of the great people from this company and capitalize on their experience in theaters and concessions. As our business grew, so did the level of trust with our amazing business partners—and today, support of the exhibitor space is strongly woven into the fabric of our business.
In our Boxoffice Barometer poll, voted on exclusively by exhibitors, Vistar was voted, far and away, the best F&B vendor of 2020. What was your strategy for working with these theatrical customers during the awful year we all had in 2020?
Vistar’s longtime commitment to doing business with a strong customer-centric approach set the stage for us to support our customers through unprecedented challenges. We are as passionate about the movie theater business as they are, which made 2020 particularly difficult to navigate for all of us. That shared commitment and belief that going to the movies has been and will continue to be an important part of our culture in America, helped us work through the challenges in the best ways possible. While the sales impacts are still being felt today, it’s exciting to see the industry slowly rebound.
What lessons has Vistar taken from 2020 that will serve you as we move beyond the pandemic?
Vistar has been investing in a customer-centric approach for a long time. The challenges of last year in theaters and concessions reinforced for us the need to continue building on those strong customer relationships. We spent many hours moving inventory to the right operating centers, working with our suppliers to take product back or move it through other channels, and helping countless customers manage through shutting down in the best way to support the eventual reemergence of their business. I am very proud of our team for staying engaged and connected with our customers and for their creativity and innovation as they looked for alternatives and solutions with each twist and turn.
What are the top challenges that Vistar faced during the pandemic, and how did you work through them?
At the height of the pandemic, several Vistar customers were forced to shut down, almost overnight. That shifted our focus from getting product to the right place at the right time, to helping our customers respond to a total loss of sales. Our commitment to sustaining those customer relationships is helping us now as we start to see the industry slowly rebound.
When it comes to distribution logistics—what are some of the innovations that have positively impacted your business over the last several years?
We believe it’s almost impossible [for others] to match the national distribution reach that Vistar has built for our customers! With our own fleet and warehouse network, we have control over how we invest in our equipment—and, more importantly, how we invest in our people, who deliver for our customers every day. We take advantage of technology in many aspects of our business, including to help us mitigate production and delivery issues many suppliers are currently facing. We can offer any concessions, food service, janitorial, or nonfood item required in a concessions setting, including frozen and refrigerated products.
Across the exhibition industry, we’re seeing how data and digitalization has streamlined procedures in so many ways—from ticket sales to film booking. How does Vistar use data to better serve its cinema clients?
Vistar’s approach to our business blends strong relationships with our customers and our supplier base with solid understanding and use of data. With a mix of suppliers that are national consumer goods companies and niche players in the concessions space, we can identify trends from a more unique perspective. We work tirelessly with our suppliers to incorporate trend-setting products and gain category insights to help customers maximize the consumer experience and improve check averages. We build success for their business and ours when we combine data with our experienced theater representative base. The innovation our team brings to our customers supports them in offering variety and unique consumer experiences.
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