Candy Czar: Tim Farha Receives 2023 Frank Liberto Award

Courtesy of the Ferrara Candy Company, CinéShow

A trip to the movies just isn’t complete without concessions—a fact acknowledged by CinéShow, which annually presents the Frank Liberto Award to a concessions or purchasing professional in the exhibition community. This year, receiving the award is Dallas’s own Tim Farha, the self-proclaimed “Theater Ambassador” (his actual title, “National Account Manager,” doesn’t have the same flair) at the Ferrara Candy Company.

Farha started his professional life at 7 or 8 years of age, helping out at his family’s grocery store—and if he would on occasion miss hanging out with his friends after school, well, at least it taught him a valuable life lesson. “I learned at an early age that if you want to play, you have to work,” Farha recalls. He studied business at the University of Kansas, then went back to the family business after graduating—for a grand total of two weeks, until he landed an entry-level position at Nestlé.

The first few years of Farha’s new job saw the young salesman traveling the country in a wood-paneled miniature station wagon, visiting grocery stores to sell displays and secure distribution for any number of Nestlé products. For the most part Farha’s customers hailed from independent stores, like the one then still run by his father and uncle, but that wouldn’t be the case for long: “I saw the writing on the wall that the independent grocery store was getting squashed by the chain grocery stores.”

Farha moved up the ladder at Nestlé, working with grocery wholesaler Fleming—which mostly served independent grocery stores—until it became clear that it, too, was on the way out. (The company would file for bankruptcy in 2000.) There being no shortage of opportunities at Nestlé, Farha’s next move was to the company’s leisure and entertainment division, where he worked with movie theaters, video stores, amusement parks, and the like to maximize candy sales. In 2018, the Italy-based multinational confectionery giant Ferrero Group purchased Nestlé’s U.S. candy line, moving most Nestlé candies—and Farha—to their U.S.-based subsidiary Ferrara Candy Company, bringing Farha’s 31-year tenure at Nestlé to an end.

“There were like five of me at Nestlé,” Farha recalls. “And now, at Ferrara, there was just me.” One of the key figures to welcome Farha into the cinema concessions industry was none other than the late Frank Liberto, founder of Ricos Products and generally acknowledged as the man who introduced the concessions nacho concept to the market. Farha first met Liberto at an NAC (National Association of Concessionaires) regional seminar in Dallas, where he and Ricos’s vice president Charlie Gomez were told—or “voluntold”—by Liberto that the three of them would be running the NAC’s regional division. “I started calling him ‘Uncle Frank,’ because he was kind of like my dad or my uncle at the grocery store, telling me what to do. He would host these big meetings and then tell Charlie and me: ‘Here’s what you boys need to be doing.’ I didn’t care, I loved it. I thought it was great. And ever since then, I’ve looked up to Frank as a mentor in the industry. Frank was always kind of the Godfather.”

As Farha was being brought into the cinema industry, he also helped introduce outside innovations. One of those came from Blockbuster, which was one of the first companies outside the traditional grocery store space to introduce the impulse aisle—marching consumers through a queue lined with candy and other treats on their way to the checkout. Nestlé had to pay for the space that its products would occupy—a substantial spend in the low six figures that Farha was vindicated in fighting for when Nestlé’s Blockbuster sales leapt to the millions.

“You now see that a lot in the theaters,” said Farha. “Almost every theater has an impulse rack out front,” freeing candy from display cases and making them accessible to moviegoers waiting in line for their popcorn or soda. “I was blue in the face talking to AMC and Regal, telling them, ‘Guys, we’ve got to add these candy racks out front.’ Cinemark got on board with it early—they would buy a lot of our cardboard displays and put them out, and they saw how quickly that sold. Then they said, ‘We’re going to use our own money and put in a bunch of racks [as a test]’—and they saw how well it worked.” Theft, says Farha, isn’t as much of a problem with this setup as some fear; with cinema concessions turning more and more to self-service, employees are no longer required to spend as much time with their backs to the customer, giving them more opportunity to keep their eyes on the displays.

“Nobody ever has candy on their grocery list,” says Farha, so tapping into that impulse buy is key. “Only maybe half of people [go] to the concession stand, so right there, I’m only getting the chance to sell to half of the people. So I started saying, well, let’s do a box office handout”—pairing ticket sales with a discount on candy or a combo. “If you plant that seed and they see it, they’ll buy it, and they’ll eat it. That’s my philosophy on candy.”

Removing barriers to purchase has helped turn concessions, including candy, into a “huge profit center” for theaters, says Farha. “Everyone who’s going to be at CinéShow knows that per caps are higher than they’ve ever been because of people spending more money at the concession stand on alcohol, popcorn, pop, candy, and Uncle Frank’s nachos. It’s been a good thing to have more real estate assigned to it.”

Still, there are more ways to combine cinema industry knowledge with technology and practices from other sectors to keep the concessions sales growing. Impulse racks won’t work at all cinemas, but there are some where they will work that are yet to adopt them. And then there’s the opportunity to buy candy without having to interact with a person at all—by using technology that allows items to be scanned and paid for automatically, without the customer having to go to a counter. Or, a bit more realistic in the year 2023, vending machines with digital displays allowing customers to choose their own candy mix. (Various theaters have tested these out, notes Farha, but expansion is at this point cost prohibitive.)

The key lesson learned through his years at Nestlé and Ferrara, says Farha, is to “work with the theater people. Work with the vending people. Learn from them how they want to promote [products], and then share with them how we’ve promoted in other classes of trade.”

Courtesy of the Ferrara Candy Company, CinéShow
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