The Bert Nathan Memorial Award is given to an individual each year by the National Association of Concessionaires (NAC) to recognize leadership and significant accomplishment in cinema concessions. Brian Biehn, this year’s recipient, has been a member of NAC since 2004 and has served as the chair of the Regional Vice President and Education committees. In 2014 Biehn began his tenure as an at-large member to the NAC board of directors. Biehn began working with exhibitors in the concessions space in 1994, selling Vogel Popcorn and introducing the Orville Redenbacher brand to cinemas for Conagra Brands. In 2004, Biehn joined FUNacho—an endeavor that led to the introduction of the PretzelHaus Bakery concept. Boxoffice spoke with Biehn about his career so far and what the future holds for the concessions business at the cinema.
When did you first begin working with exhibition through your role in concessions?
I started in the concessions/theater trade back in 1994 with Conagra. I was on the bulk popcorn side with Vogel Popcorn, responsible for sales. Conagra went through a centralization, merged, and created the Conagra snack foods company, and Orville Redenbacher came under our umbrella. I was part of our team that was able to introduce branding Orville Redenbacher in theaters. That was an exciting project to work on, as that was such a high-quality brand and made perfect sense to launch in the theater channel.
What were some of your first impressions of working with exhibition?
You know, the fun thing for me about the job is that I love the movies. It’s an industry that’s a little bit of a throwback, in that it’s a people-driven and relationship-driven business, by and large. That’s what makes it so fun and interesting and fulfilling. So it’s a neat business to go into. You never don’t like going to work or talking about the movies.
How did you come into your current role?
I became friends with Mike Grause, who owns FUNacho. We struck up a great friendship. He was in the theater business, as I was. I ended up going to work with him at FUNacho back in 2005. Mike and I founded PretzelHaus in 2008.
Where did the PretzelHaus concept originate?
We had a longtime theater customer approach us and say, “Hey, can you make a better pretzel than we have today, specifically in regards to transaction time, lower spoilage, and help free up freezer space?” We accepted the challenge, and with the help of a gentleman who would become a business partner (a third-generation certified master baker, trained in Germany) we were fortunate to develop our shelf-stable pretzel. Our product allows our customers to not have to use their valuable freezer space for pretzels. It also benefits theaters that don’t have freezers to now offer their moviegoers a soft pretzel. Spoilage is dramatically reduced or even eliminated as theaters don’t have to throw out unused prepared pretzels.
What are some of the most important details exhibitors can master to make sure their concessions area is as effective as possible when it comes to sales?
People eat with their eyes. I mean, we use all our senses for food. One of the keys is what we see. So we developed, in conjunction with another customer, a pretzel display box. Most of our customers use that. It’s a window box. Theaters charge, let’s be honest, a premium price for products. So people want to get a perceived high-quality product value with that. Our bakery box is a great display piece and upsells the product. I don’t have quantifiable data on that, but we had a customer tell us it provides a nice percent increase. I’m paying X amount for a pretzel, and now I’m getting this in a nice display box so it looks bakery fresh. People want a warm comfort snack food. Obviously, popcorn and Coke or Pepsi are the huge margin and go-to for a long time. People added candy. Then they added nachos and pretzels. What we were able to do is provide a comfort snack. We weren’t reinventing the wheel. You can get pretzels at other concession venues like stadiums, arenas, things like that—but not all theaters were carrying them. They didn’t have a lot of freezer space or kitchens, so they couldn’t offer pretzels. Many of our theaters that are now buying our product either didn’t have freezers or didn’t have enough freezer space. They were able to bring in our products and offer an incremental item that they weren’t able to before. It keeps expanding. I think theaters continue to look for new items that are tried and true. They want to grow that; they want incremental sales without cannibalizing what they have.
Which products and innovations that you’ve been associated with throughout your career stand out most?
I’ve already mentioned a couple: branding Orville [Redenbacher popcorn] in many high-quality circuits and developing and selling a shelf-stable pretzel. Our shelf-stable pretzel is fun to sell because it’s different; it’s unique. Our customers love it. One of our pretzel flavors is cinnamon and we also offer an icing cup, and together they taste like a cinnamon roll. We also just recently launched a shelf-stable chili pouch with 30 percent meat for hot dogs and nachos that has been received very well.
As far as the theaters themselves, I think personally what I’ve seen—which, looking back on it seemed very simple—were the combos. Combos were already in fast food, but now when you walk into a movie theater it’s standard that they have combos. I’m sure if you asked the theater chains, those are high volume and speed up transaction time too: “I’ll take a No. 1” or “I’ll take a No. 3.”
Another thing I’ve seen that I think has been revolutionary is where you walk up [to the counter] and now they funnel you through the kiosk or the gondolas. People are picking candy or pop or a snack on their way up to the concession stand. I know that that’s been pretty big for theaters as well.
The other thing is the variety of food. I mean, chicken fingers and hot foods outside of traditional concession foods. That’s all new. And alcohol. Those two things are very new, very different for the theater industry.
What do you think is necessary for concessionaires to be able to address contemporary audience tastes? Is it a situation of getting the staples right, or about ushering in a new kind of product line?
I think it’s to keep it simple. When people go to a movie theater, they go to be entertained. They go to indulge and have a great time. I’ve seen people try to do salads and a lot of different things. If people go, they want popcorn, they want pretzels, they want nachos, they want a piece of pizza. Overall, when people go to the movie theater, they’re not really concerned about the calories. The only time I drink soft drinks is at a movie theater. I get a snack and I don’t care about the calories. I’m getting away, I’m getting entertained, I’m going to a movie.
The only thing that goes against what I’m saying is gluten-free. That is a big deal today. People want gluten-free options, no question. I see it all the time. I get asked all the time. I think that is here to stay, because more and more kids, especially, have issues with gluten and food allergies. I do think that is not really a trend; I think that is a growing national situation.
That being said, I think that’s different than the average contemporary consumer coming in. I think people still want the staples of the concessions industry. People smarter than me are doing the dine-in; it sounds like that’s going well. That’s a piece to it. But as far as traditional concessions, I think it’s just presenting the best product and keeping it as clear as you can on the menu board. People eat with their eyes. They’re going to find something with their eyes, whether it’s the menu board or the display and merchandising of the products.
I think the more things you have, the more of a challenge it becomes for the guests to pick what they want, which means they take more time, which means your transaction times change. People want a good snack when they get in there. I know it’s a captive audience, but you want people coming back and buying it again. So you want to offer a very good-tasting high-quality product, and people are going to keep buying it.