As alcohol service becomes more prevalent in U.S. exhibition, it’s become more important—and more challenging—to appeal to evolving consumer tastes. Texas-based Flix Brewhouse decided to take a specialized approach in catering to their audience by capitalizing on the rise of craft beer. In addition to operating their own microbrewery, which contributes nine different beers to the circuit’s beer menu, Flix Brewhouse curates a selection of draft beers for patrons aged 21 and over. Boxoffice spoke with Greg Johnson, the circuit’s director of sales and marketing, to get a better understanding of Flix Brewhouse’s approach to alcohol service.
Can you share with us a bit of the history of Flix Brewhouse? How did the concept originate and what has been your experience so far in realizing it?
Flix Brewhouse launched in the summer of 2011 in Round Rock, Texas. Our founder and CEO, Allan Reagan, owned a shopping center and was looking for a dine-in movie theater anchor tenant. He was deep into the process with another concept when that opportunity bogged down. At the time, he was also operating a craft-beer-forward restaurant and had been following both upward trends in cinema and craft beer. He also happened to own brewing equipment in a shipping container that wasn’t doing anything other than gathering dust.
He still wanted a movie theater, and when he realized no one had put a real brewery in a first-run movie theater, he decided to tackle it! Thus Flix Brewhouse was born. It’s been a fascinating run, and people still don’t always get it when we say, “No, really, we are just as much real brew pub as we are real dine-in cinema.”
With so many circuits now trying their hand at alcohol service and in-theater dining, what makes Flix Brewhouse stand out?
I think it’s the fact that we are a real award-winning brewery. There’s a culture that surrounds craft beer, and millennial audiences are turning away from brands that aren’t authentic. Just like a cinephile cares deeply about the presentation, creation, and preservation of great film, there’s a growing movement among beer drinkers who care deeply about the culture, quality, and preservation of craft beer. We embrace that on a fundamental level. It’s why you won’t see us pouring Bud Light on our draft wall.
Craft beer has seen an important surge over the last decade. In fact, you could say we’re seeing a generational change in consumers’ attitudes about beer. It seems like U.S. consumers are better informed about different styles and types of beers, and we’re seeing that reflected in sales. With that in mind, what role does a draft selection play for your company?
In our eyes, what you put on a wall is just as important as what you put on a screen. When you approach moviegoing from a holistic, sensory experience, it changes your perspective on each element of how you deliver something as simple as film exhibition. It’s important for us as exhibitors to find ways to elevate the experience. Comfortable seats are important, great projection and sound, too, but when you can layer smell and taste into the sensory experience, and do it with hand-crafted beers made on-site specifically to complement a film release and excellent dining options to boot, you get the total package that’s impossible to replicate at home. Of course, there’s also the moviegoing element to keep in mind.
Can you take us through what a typical Flix Brewhouse location and auditorium look like?
The Flix experience actually begins online. We are a 100 percent–reserved seating environment and encourage all guests to join us 30 minutes before show time so they can enjoy our custom pre-show, their server can walk them through our comprehensive menu and highlight special or seasonal beers so they can get acquainted with their Flix location. When you walk into our lobby, you can actually see the entire brewing process through floor-to-ceiling windows (there’s also a good chance you’ll see brewers working to make beer while you’re visiting). Our lobby is more like a bar and restaurant than a theater lobby.
We have serving tanks filled with beer above our bar that run right into the tap wall. It’s all the real deal. These aren’t empty display pieces. We use a place-making approach within our lobby areas to accommodate different guest uses of the space and to create opportunities for connected experiences before guests even enter their auditorium.
Many guests grab a drink at the bar before going into their auditorium. Thirty minutes before show time, doors open and guests find their seats. We have different seating types available from recliners to our proprietary Easy Glider tables, custom designed for in-theater dining. In either case, a server will stop and greet our guests and walk them through the experience and menu. Each seat is also wired into a command and control center and equipped with a lighted call button to alert us if they’d like to order after the initial greeting. During the feature, guests can use silent order pads to write their order, then press the button, and we do the rest.
What was the biggest learning experience you had in launching your circuit?
No one on our leadership team had cinema experience prior to their time with Flix, so learning how things work in exhibition has had its challenges. Part of what makes us special is a double-edged sword: we understand the restaurant/brewery business very well. Scaling that to partner with cinema exhibition is very challenging to do, especially doing it consistently at a high level. But we approach it through the eyes of our guests and rely heavily on technology innovation with our partners to help us deliver a stellar experience.
But now we’ve rounded that corner and it’s off to the races, so to speak! So we plan to open 15 locations by the end of 2020 and expect to bring our unique brand of moviegoing to cities across the Southwest, Midwest, and Southeast.
What advice would you give to exhibitors looking to add alcohol service to their circuit?
First, I’d say don’t do it unless you’re actually committed to doing it right. Guests’ expectations are rising daily. If you’re not willing to clean your draft lines, don’t put in draft lines. If you’re not going to store wine appropriately, don’t sell wine. If you’re not going to train team members on safe serving habits to protect your guests, you just can’t do it. The movie business is complicated. So is the adult-beverage business. An operator must be all-in, authentic, and must take the business seriously; otherwise the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.