CINEMACON 2016: Bert Nathan Memorial Award – John & Tony Irace, Packaging Concepts

Packaging Concepts began as a family business; has it continued being one to this day?

JOHN IRACE: Our father, Joe Irace, started the company in 1972 and was in the packaging business prior to that for 17 years in Chicago. He had a summer house up in Wisconsin, and when he got tired of the rat race he started the business up in Wisconsin. I ended up coming with him in 1975, after college, and Tony came 10 years later, after he finished college himself. Our sister Barbara has been with us in the business since 1985, and I’ve got two sons in it as well—Adam and Daniel. We purchased the business from our father in 1999. Tony and I are happy to have a third generation in the business now.

What do you remember of the early days of the company?

TONY IRACE: I remember distinctly my first day at Packaging Concepts. It was July 8, 1985, and I had just graduated college with a degree in international business. On that first day I unloaded a container of microwave popcorn bags from Europe, by hand—1,250 cases that had to be unloaded and palletized. It’s very hot in St. Louis in July, especially when you’re in a 40-foot container. So, as I’m unloading each case I’m wondering, “Why did I do this? Why did I go to college?” I have fond memories from those early days, of learning the business literally from the ground up—working the plants, the various parts of the operation, and then finally moving up through the plant, quality control, and then into management. But that first day will forever live in my mind.

JOHN: Our father always said, “You’ve got to start at the ground floor and work your way up.” I have seven brothers and sisters, Tony being my youngest brother, and all of us have been in the business at one time or another. Tony and I are the ones that ended up buying the business with our sister. I echo Tony’s response that our father always believed that you have to know what you’re doing before you get into the management world, and we all started at the bottom of the totem pole. My sons both started in the plant and were working at printing presses, cleaning ink pans, and really getting to know the business from the ground floor up. That was the way we were brought up, and that’s the way that I’m bringing up my sons.

How did Packaging Concepts begin servicing the exhibition industry?

JOHN: Our largest product line is microwave popcorn bags, and we’ve been making those since the early ’80s. In 1993, I received a telephone call from a paper cup manufacturer saying that they were making bags for the movie theaters and had problems with the bags leaking; they said they were good at making round things but not good at making square things—exact words. So I traveled to Chicago and had a meeting with them. They asked us if we were interested in purchasing their bag line because they were phasing out of bags. Their customer in Kansas City was AMC Theaters, owned by Stan Durwood. Stan was making the transition then from paper cups and popcorn tubs and cups to bags, for cost savings and source reduction. He and his wife were at a movie one night, and his wife had a nice dress and she happened to like butter on her popcorn, and when she put it on the bag that this cup company had made, it leaked all over her dress. Right away, he called up the company and said he was going back to cups and tubs. We had bag-making machinery to make heat-sealed-bottom microwave popcorn bags, which no one else did in the industry. We ran a trial order of 50,000 bags in 1994. The trial was approved, and they started buying bags from us. That was our first intro into the theater industry.

How have you found working with exhibition since?

TONY: The exhibition community is a wonderful group. If you look at all the people we’ve worked with over the years, they’re still there—whether they’re vendors like us or exhibition companies like AMC. The industry is a wonderful group of companies and people that we’ve enjoyed working with from day one. It’s an exciting industry.

JOHN: What I like about this industry is that it’s always giving back to the communities, and a lot of it revolves around variety clubs and children’s charities. Tony and I are both big in the area here with a couple of different organizations we support, and it’s nice to give back to the communities. It’s very different from any other market segment that we’re in. It just makes you feel good.

Has the industry changed significantly in recent years, as exhibitors have begun adopting expanded concessions offerings?
JOHN: We have seen it starting to change over the past couple of years, with in-theater dining, with liquor sales, with different food options other than just Coke or Pepsi, popcorn and candy. Now they’re doing a lot of different food items, they’re trying to capture a market from the restaurant trade, and they’re trying to make going to the movies a full dine-in experience. With that said, we have added some different packaging lines to make pizza packaging and nacho packaging; we’re sort of a one-stop shop for all your concession needs. We have two plants, one in St. Louis and one in Houston.

What does a show like CinemaCon mean to your business?
TONY: CinemaCon, to us, is the annual gathering of all of our theater customers and all of the companies like us—the movie studios and everyone. There are a lot of regional shows we attend throughout the year; they tend to be more specific to theaters in that region—major chains as well as the independents. When you go to CinemaCon it’s the national and, quite frankly, international exhibition, where we see all our customers all at the same time and in one place.

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