Popcorn, Candy, Soda…and So Much More

“Do you know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It’s the little differences,” says John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction, beginning an amusing monologue on what sets the Old World apart from the United States. “You can walk into a movie theater in Amsterdam and buy a beer—and I don’t mean no paper cup, I’m talking about a glass of beer.” Audiences in 1994 chuckled at Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue, which illustrated aspects of European life that didn’t quite translate to the U.S. Two decades later, having a beer at a movie theater isn’t as foreign as it once seemed.

While alcoholic offerings have been a staple of some circuits in the United States for a number of years, Vivian Company, which specializes in designing bar spaces for venues, reports to have seen a notable uptick in the current decade. “There has been interest for years, but I would say that the biggest push came within the last three, as some chains took innovative approaches to adding alcohol to their offerings,” says Vivian president Dennis Fanger. The biggest obstacle for a faster adoption rate of the concept according to Fanger concerns the multiple regulatory issues around alcohol sales, including laws that change significantly from state to state and county by county. Exhibitors were also faced with operational challenges, such as requirements that concessions workers be of legal age in order to sell alcohol. Companies began to rely on regulatory experts to research ways to incorporate alcoholic beverages, and, according to Fanger, the results of those endeavors began to pay off in recent years as alcohol sales became more prevalent in movie theaters across the country.

Even though incorporating alcohol comes at a cost and can turn into a lengthy process, Barney Bailey, CEO of Entertainment Supply & Technologies, describes its appeal succinctly: margins. “The trend of selling alcoholic beverages alone has allowed cinema owners to benefit from higher profit margins and per capita increases without a huge capital investment in equipment, training, and labor,” he explains. That doesn’t mean that exhibitors considering alcohol need to start stocking up on inventory or begin rebranding their staff as mixologists.

“Since beverage sales are where the money is on the food service side, we’ve seen several clients begin with a small menu of beer and wine, and reap benefits very early on.”

Christina Woodlief, a culinary consultant for Entertainment Supply & Technologies, views incorporating alcohol sales as a savvy first step into developing an enhanced concessions menu. “Beverage profits, and the bottom line security they provide, can then allow an owner to more securely expand their menus and survive the time it takes to refine a new food service operation into a well-oiled machine that contributes to their margins in a consistent, positive way,” she says, before adding that an enhanced menu also requires an enhanced prep area for employees. “This of course involves upgrading their food service equipment and concessions space to include ingredient prep areas, Turbo Chef ovens, and skilled employees.”

An expanded prep area for concessions is only one of several notable changes in the industry. Bruce Proctor, president of Proctor Companies, distinguishes the shifts in cinemas’ concessions areas into three main categories. “The first is space,” he says. “Refrigerators, freezers, walk-in coolers, ovens, prep tables, and even corridors are now larger to enable greater food and beverage storage and output.” Proctor suggests converting the auditorium nearest a concessions stand area as a solution to accommodate the logistics involved for an enhanced menu. Proctor Companies recently applied that strategy in a renovation for the Angelika Film Center in San Diego. “When you run the numbers, renovation almost always yields a higher return on investment—not only because it requires less capital, but also because spiffing up an existing location reasserts a theater owner’s market position and protects his business against potential competitors who may be thinking about moving into his film zone.”

Concessions areas also have to be modified to accommodate larger utilities, such as larger ovens and refrigeration units, according to Proctor. Greater ventilation capacity comes into play, as does increased service for utilities like gas and electricity. Finally, the third main difference that Proctor has seen at the concessions stand—perhaps the most complicated and unpredictable of them all—comes down to staffing. “New theater designs require employees like bartenders, chefs, waiters, and waitresses,” he explains. “Job descriptions that are new to our industry. At Proctor Companies, we encourage owners to plan for both a higher head count and the inevitable increases in management and training that will be required to ensure their success.”

Staffing is crucial in order to match an expanded concessions menu with the proper level of service, both in terms of quality and speed, says Entertainment Supply & Technologies’ Christina Woodlief. “Below par food on any given night can be forgiven if accompanied by great service, but it usually doesn’t work the other way around,” she says, citing an adage from the restaurant industry. Service has been a particular focus for cinema-dining operators, who have adapted their operations around a variety of models with different levels of interruption to a moviegoers’ experience. Vendors are catching up to the trend, with call button services that allow patrons to order from their seats to POS software that can handle food orders within the confines of a movie theater.

Not all innovations in concessions area design come with the need for additional staff, however. Similar to newsstands you might find at an airport, grab-n-go and self-serve concessions stands have become increasingly popular in recent years by allowing customers to quickly pick up and pay for snacks on their way to their seats. “These designs increase impulse purchases and require no additional staffing,” says Proctor. “It’s a fairly simple change, but it can make a huge impact on the bottom line.”

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