The Taste of 2022: F&B Professionals Weigh In on the State of Concessions

Courtesy NAC

The most important part of any patron’s movie theater experience is obvious: the movie. 2022 has shown us that, with the right product, customers will and do flock back to the movies in record-breaking numbers, hopefully to be met by a high standard of presentation and a smooth customer service journey. And popcorn. Lots and lots of popcorn.

Concessions have been part of the industry since its infancy, with the standards—popcorn, soda, candy—multiplying over the decades into an array of food both healthy and indulgent, traditional and innovative. To many, a movie isn’t really a movie unless it’s accompanied by a trip to the concession stand—and many of those folks were present at the 2022 National Association of Concessionaires’ (NAC) Concession and Hospitality Expo, held in Orlando from July 26 to 29.

The passion on display among the show’s attendees was complemented by an earnest desire to build relationships and workshop solutions to the industry’s problems, two of which took center stage at this year’s Expo: rising costs and shortages (of both labor and products).

“Just be ready to pivot,” said Tim Farha, Ferrara Candy Company’s national account manager, in the Expo’s Thursday panel on maximizing margins. “Don’t be afraid to have two distributors. Or, if this item is not available, switch to that.” Beyond supply chain issues, which are causing ripple effects throughout the cinema industry, changing customer sentiment in the wake of the pandemic—like a preference for single-serve packaging or touchless payment—has also necessitated the reworking of standard practices.

Over the four days of the show, veterans of the F&B community shared their experiences grappling with the unpredictability that’s become a hallmark of 2022, from new hirees ghosting before their first day to shipments coming in wrong to shipments just plain not coming in at all. Even popcorn machine manufacturer C. Cretors and Company, which mitigates supply chain issues by working with local vendors as much as possible, has gotten burned. Says V.P. sales and marketing Shelly Olesen: “It’s pretty interesting for me after being at Cretors 31 years to see a bunch of half-built equipment on the floor … you’re reliant on some of your vendor partners, and they tell you [an item is] supposed to be in next week, and next week comes and they don’t bother to tell you that it didn’t arrive.”

If one were to come up with an NAC-themed drinking game, “pivot” and “supply chain” would be the top phrases to listen for. But, explains Kim Cook-Sorano, director of food and beverage at Galaxy Theatres, “supply chain fatigue is a real thing. Guests have been hearing it for so long at this point. They don’t want to hear it anymore.” And the dreaded supply chain certainly isn’t an excuse for failing to provide guests with an exceptional experience. Speaking from the exhibitor’s perspective, Cook-Sorano cautioned against passing price increases down to the customer as a default, instead advocating a more strategic approach that includes boosting prices on high-profit items. On the operations side, she recommends a hard look at standard operating procedure to identify places to pare down expenses, whether that’s keeping certain food-preparation equipment turned off during low-traffic periods or changing the dress code to reduce the amount spent on uniforms. Vendors, as well, have pivoted to better accommodate the reality of their customers: At Ferrara, a process of SKU rationalization means focusing on the products that sell best for their clients and retiring or pausing less popular offerings, while early in the pandemic Cretors stocked up on spare parts, anticipating that repair, not the purchase of new machines, would be a priority for cinemas moving forward.

If the concessions community is hunkering down to weather an economic storm, that doesn’t mean there was a lack of optimism at the Expo. A collection of first-time vendors indicated that more and more companies are seeing the potential of the cinema and hospitality spaces, especially as cinema operators investigate premium amenities—including expanded F&B menus—to attract customers. “Each year, we try to find ways to feature our new vendors,” says NAC executive vice president Chris Dammann. “This year we had a premium section of the trade show floor dedicated to our first timers. We find that this enables innovation with new products and equipment. Being a member of NAC allows vendors to put their products and services in front of an incredible variety of concessions buyers. It’s also a mechanism to garner valuable feedback on the unique needs of the concessions and hospitality marketplace.” Further innovations could be found during off-site visits to Orlando’s Camping World Stadium and Amway Center, where cashless technology and innovative use of space for concessions sales could make their way to cinemas down the line.

“Other shows have an F&B element,” says Damman, but the NAC Expo “is uniquely dedicated to this critical part of any entertainment venue’s success. The size of our event and the various opportunities to interact allow operators and vendors to have longer and more meaningful conversations, and this results in relationships that build business.” Next year’s Expo takes place in Memphis, Tennessee, where doubtless this committed crew of staff, volunteers, NAC members, and attendees will remain just as invested in supporting and educating each other through an interesting—to put it mildly—time for the world of F&B.

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