After managing movie theaters for 16 years, Rob Novak moved up to Marcus Theatres’ home office in Wisconsin to become the growing circuit’s new head of concessions and food and beverage (F&B) during a critical time. Marcus Theatres has significantly expanded its concessions strategy during Novak’s nine-year tenure in that role, a time span that includes the circuit’s nationwide expansion to more than 1,000 screens and 88 locations.
Presented annually by the National Association of Concessionaires, the Bert Nathan Memorial Award recognizes leadership and significant accomplishment in the movie theater concessions sector. Rob Novak brings a wealth of experience and accolades as this year’s recipient: He is responsible for the direction, menu development, and oversight of concessions and food and beverage operations at the Marcus Theatres circuit. Included in his portfolio are three full-service Zaffiro’s restaurants and nearly 30 Zaffiro’s Express outlets, about a dozen Reel Sizzle outlets, nearly 50 lobby/bar restaurants branded as Take Five Lounge and The Tavern, and more than 30 locations that offer in-auditorium dining. Novak played an integral role in launching BistroPlex, a concept that features all in-theater dining and puts a much greater focus on the food. He was instrumental in integrating Movie Tavern into the Marcus Theatres portfolio in 2019, and he currently manages the F&B and leads operations for those 22 properties.
Boxoffice Pro spoke with Novak ahead of the award ceremony, scheduled for July 27 in Orlando during the NAC’s annual convention, and asked him to look back on his career and the evolution he’s witnessed at the concession stand.
How did you get your start in the movie theater business, and how did you come to work in the concessions side of the business?
I started working in movie theaters back in high school, in December of 1996, and continued working in theaters through college during summer breaks. I stayed in the industry after college and moved to the Marcus Theatres home office in the beginning of 2013 to work on the food and beverage side of the industry. The opportunity to move to the home office came organically; it wasn’t a position that I was seeking out. At that time, I was working in the field as a general manager. The opportunity was presented to me to move to the office and I jumped on it. I went from dealing with day-to-day customers to dealing with vendors and larger-scale issues that have a business impact across the entire circuit.
What have been some of the lessons you took from those first days in exhibition that still resonate with you in your current role?
The thing that’s always been essential—something you learn early on in the field and carry with you up to the home office—is that while we need to sell tickets to bring people in, we need to sell them ancillary items to truly make money. That’s where your concessions strategy comes in. No movie theater is operational by showing movies alone. We all need to figure out ways to offer consumers something that gets them to spend beyond their ticket purchase.
The one thing that continues to ring true is that consumers love popcorn. The movies have a unique association with popcorn. Every other thing we do is something consumers can obtain somewhere else. Candy and soda are items you can find at any grocery store. Even as we’ve expanded into culinary items that are unique and well-executed, those aren’t exclusive to theaters. When it comes to popcorn, movie theater popcorn is the gold standard of that specific snack. Home popcorn tries to mimic movie theater popcorn; it’s even branded that way on the packaging. That’s the one lesson you learn from the moment you start working in exhibition: Popcorn is king. There’s nothing else that gets consumers more excited about their trip to a movie theater. It’s an essential part of the moviegoing experience and probably the most important thing we do.
There have been so many innovations to moviegoing over the past decade—and F&B is among the areas that have changed the most. What is the most influential innovation you’ve seen at the concessions stand in the last ten years?
Alcohol has been, first and foremost, the single largest and most important change to a movie theater’s concessions business. Alcohol is now up there with popcorn, soda, and candy as one of your main assets. It’s a product that is sold at a premium that consumers consistently seek out. In 2013 we probably had four or six theaters selling alcohol. Today we have around 80 theaters offering it. Every theater we have has a liquor license and sells alcohol in some fashion, whether it’s behind the concessions stand or through a full-service bar with dedicated seating. That’s been the biggest evolution we’ve seen.
I still think of that scene in Pulp Fiction, where John Travolta is telling an incredulous Samuel L. Jackson that you can order a beer—And I don’t mean no paper cup, I’m talking about a glass of beer—at a movie theater in Amsterdam. It feels like it wasn’t that long ago when alcohol seemed very out of place at a U.S. movie theater.
I’d go as far as saying that I wouldn’t build a movie theater today without getting a liquor license first. It’s very easy to maximize the profitability of alcohol. Consumers come in with a built-in awareness of the premium brands and their value. It doesn’t spoil as food does, and it has a very long shelf life. Alcohol stands alongside popcorn and soda as an essential revenue driver.
Your role at Marcus has changed as the circuit has incorporated different F&B strategies and dine-in concepts, including its acquisition of dine-in circuit Movie Tavern in 2018, which pushed the chain to over 1,000 locations nationwide. Can you walk us through how that evolution took place at Marcus Theatres?
The average consumer has a lower expectation when it comes to movie theater food. Because of that perception, we knew we had to deliver better-than-average results. I’m defining that average to restaurant standards. Our food has to consistently exceed our guests’ expectations. Otherwise, we struggle from a legitimacy standpoint.
Our strategy started with a full-service Zaffiro’s restaurant. Zaffiro’s is a local Milwaukee-based pizza company. We got the rights to open two Zaffiro’s full-service restaurants in Wisconsin and one in Minnesota—testing the concept by taking a screen out from our venues and adding a full-service restaurant. We learned from that experience that we didn’t need to replicate that model in every single instance. We consolidated the concept by modifying the menu in a QSR (quick service restaurant) model, Zaffiro’s Express, where consumers can order from an expanded menu at a concession stand, pick up their order, and take it back to their seats.
Zaffiro’s is a pizza/Italian concept, and the evolution from there was our decision to explore other QSR concepts. We knew that the QSR market was oversaturated with burger places, but we thought we could offer a different spin on the concept in our buildings. That idea ultimately led to Reel Sizzle, a place where we could offer burgers, shakes, and chicken tenders with all sorts of toppings. We knew consumers in many of our local markets really responded to this type of restaurant, so it was a natural evolution for us to bring that to our theaters.
Our next step was to create a BistroPlex, an entire venue dedicated to the dine-in experience. We melded all these menus together to create a unique dine-in concept with tremendous pizza and burger options. We looked at different finger food options that could work well in a movie theater setting. Prior to that, we had experimented with this concept by converting two or three auditoriums in a given venue to dine-in—and that experience helped us develop and launch our own BistroPlex concept. We had acquired Wehrenberg Theaters years prior, and part of my job was to look at the F&B Wehrenberg had rolled out and analyze what worked and what hadn’t. We learned from all these different experiences ahead of the Movie Tavern acquisition and informed our strategy in incorporating those sites into our circuit.
The pandemic put extraordinary stress on the exhibition industry. How did it impact your line of work at the concession stand?
Due to the supply chain issues throughout the country—and due to decisions made by manufacturers during the pandemic to cut down on their product offerings—we’ve had to adjust the products available to our customers at any given time. The pandemic accelerated a lot of decisions businesses were eventually going to take: We realized we didn’t need to have 27 product lines across 27 packaging sizes. The pandemic pushed manufacturers to restock shelves at grocery stores across the country; they put all their energy into supplying supermarkets because that’s where that demand was at the height of the crisis. It has been a slow shift to redirect that focus back to servicing venues like restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, and the like. The supply chain had never encountered this push and pull. It wasn’t prepared for this scenario, and it made things very difficult for entertainment venues. We were very fortunate that despite these challenges we never went without a product we absolutely needed. Sure, we’ve gone through periods where certain types of candy or packaging were missing—but we also had a range of alternatives to offer our guests.
The pandemic also pushed Marcus Theatres to go all-in on its own mobile ordering system for concessions. How did that transition take place?
We were lucky in that we created our mobile ordering system back in 2019. We were building a brand new Movie Tavern location in Wisconsin and made the decision to open it without servers, instead having people order through their phones, kiosks, or through a walk-up window in the theater where they could make their selections and have the food delivered to their seats. That theater opened in October 2019.
And then the pandemic happens; the building shuts down on St. Patrick’s Day 2020. We have this app that’s been designed, tested, and used at that theater for a couple of months. As the pandemic rages on, we decide to sell popcorn out of every location in the summer 2020 but don’t have any labor to do so. That’s when we turned to our app, where we have all our guests who want to order curbside popcorn at any of our theaters throughout the country do so through one of our online platforms. We just built that out over the summer, training our guests, staff, and managers to order through our app. In late summer 2020, leading up to the release of Tenet, we pushed hard to get all our customers on mobile ordering—especially at our Movie Tavern locations—because we simply didn’t have the number of servers we needed.
It was a one-year journey to get to where we are today with it, but we were fortunate to have all that pre-pandemic work and planning already in place. Mobile ordering is everywhere today— whether it’s proprietary apps like McDonald’s, Starbucks, or Chipotle, or third-party apps like DoorDash or GrubHub. People have become acclimated to ordering from their phones. You combine that with the labor costs, hiring, and retention struggles that we’ve all experienced as an industry, and it just makes business sense to turn to mobile ordering to shorten those concession stand lines. Ultimately, I think that’s what’s best for the consumer. In many cases, our guests are deterred from buying anything because of long lines at the concession stand. Mobile ordering helps us make sure we can get the right order ready a lot faster for our customers.