Guest Column: Vegan Alternatives at the Movies Go Beyond the Health-Conscious Set

by Jim Amos, Chief Operating Officer, Scout 22

The NAC’s 2019 Concession and Hospitality Expo convenes July 30–August 2 in Chicago, and food-and-beverage representatives from North American cinema chains will be on hand to sample new offerings in the concession world to determine which new products will be ready to tempt moviegoers in the coming year.

While most in attendance will be looking for the new popcorn flavoring or pretzel dip to add to their theater snack centers, the smart ones may be expanding their view and looking into the real growth sector of the food business, vegan options.

While overall growth in the food industry topped off at 2 percent last year, plant-based products rose 21 percent, a staggering number, and with the explosion into the mainstream of companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible, that percentage is likely to be significantly higher in 2019.

Yet, if one pays a visit to a movie theater concession stand, one will find with rare exception that vegan options are woefully lacking. Ask a concession attendant what they offer for vegans or vegetarians and you’ll undoubtedly be referred to popcorn, which sometimes is not vegan at all, or pretzels or perhaps, heaven forbid, gummy bears. Not exactly a treasure trove of options, is it? On a recent visit to a multiplex here in the San Fernando Valley region of Southern California, an area at the forefront of the plant-based movement in the U.S., I asked a concession employee how the bags of nuts were selling. The young man looked at me with a puzzled expression and after a painfully long pause replied with, “I didn’t even know we carried them.” Well OK then.

To be fair, North American cinema chains have experimented in the past with healthy snacks. They did not sell well, and exhibitors whom I spoke with rationalized pulling these products out of their stands by saying that moviegoers want an escape and didn’t want to eat, as one major chain concession manager told me, “food fit for a squirrel.” 

The problem with that view is that vegan options have exploded over the past few years, and plant-based versions of the foods we all love and grew up with are not only available but are experiencing a growth explosion. There’s no better example of how people want escapism while still eating (somewhat) healthy and ethically than in the sports-stadium world.

Only a few short years ago, if you wanted to watch your favorite sports team without gorging on a burger or hot dog, then you’d have to try to smuggle in your own snacks without getting caught. International spies trying to evade Interpol didn’t have to work this hard to avoid detection. Now, however, most stadiums in North America offer at least basic vegan options, and some sports venues have taken the lead and could show the cinema industry a thing or two about appealing to customers who’d like to go meatless while still enjoying the experience.

Yankee Stadium, for example, offers products from both Beyond Meat and Impossible at its Bareburger concession stand .The Minnesota Twins stadium, Target Field, offers brats and hot dogs from local favorites The Herbivorous Butcher. Globe Life Park, home of the Texas Rangers, has an all-vegan concession stand, The Ballpark Vegan. Staples Center, home of the L.A. Lakers, Kings, and Clippers offers nearly 20 vegan options at the arena. Lincoln Financial Field sells vegan versions of Philly steak sandwiches, hot dogs, and burgers. Even Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers, has veggie bratwurst and veggie burgers for sale to their infamous Cheesehead fans.

But the news is not all bleak on the vegan option front at your local multiplex. Circuits such as Alamo Drafthouse and Laemmle here in the States and Everyman in the U.K. are featuring plant-based options of moviegoers’ favorite fare, and they are selling well. Caitlin Kleppinger, concessions manager for the Laemmle chain states, “Our customers have been very enthusiastic about the new vegan menu items. Modern movie theater concessions stands are expected to have more than just popcorn, soda, and candy. As we expand our offerings to meet the expectations of our audience, we’re excited that we have found high-quality options that cater to the vegan and vegetarians that attend our theaters.” 

Zeffirelli’s, a single-screen independent theater in the Ambleside area of the U.K. more resembles an award-winning restaurant with a wealth of vegan options than a movie theater. One would be hard-pressed to find a similar experience here in North America. 

The vast array of ready-to-eat plant-based products that is currently on the market means that vegan options shouldn’t be limited to dine-in theaters. You can now get vegan hot dogs, burgers, nuggets, and other snack items that can be prepared and served to moviegoers in a relatively short amount of time at the concession stand. 

While the percentage of Americans giving up meat at least once a week is growing, it is especially prevalent in the 18–45 age bracket, which is a sweet spot for the movie industry and cinema chains. QSR magazine notes that consumers under 40 have upped their plant-based intake by 59 percent. Millennials and members of Generation Z are adopting plant-based at an early age and should be a source of growth for decades to come. Futurity reports that two-thirds of consumers have reported eating less of one type of meat and most of them have switched to a diet that includes plant-based versions of their favorite foods. 

Unfortunately it sometimes feels that the only group not to have received that memo is the exhibition industry. Fast food chains like Subway, Del Taco, The Habit, Taco Bell, Shake Shack, and Carl’s Jr. have vegan options in all or some of their stores, and Burger King is experimenting with the Impossible Burger in Europe. Pizza giants like Little Caesars and Pizza Hut either currently have vegan options or are planning to add them. Even McDonalds is weighing whether to feature plant-based burgers in its locations.

The choice to make vegan versions of moviegoers’ favorite junk foods is not purely financial either. With a growing commitment from companies to have as little impact on the planet as possible, it’s difficult to ignore a fact like the one that shows that it takes nearly 1,000 gallons of water to make one fast food burger or that one plant-based food company estimated that, through the sale of its products, it saved nearly 3.5 million animals that would have been sacrificed if those food items had been animal-meat based. Back in February, Forbes posted a particularly eye-opening piece about how the fast food industry needed to face up to the water and climate risks for which it’s responsible, risks that are significantly decreased if they concentrated even a portion of their food output on plant-based rather than meat-based. In this era of corporate responsibility every company has to take a hard look at its environmental footprint.

So it’s time for cinema chains to realize that vegan does not mean a bunch of hippies sitting cross-legged in their lobby chanting and discussing existential dualism. These days plant-based offerings replicate their customers’ desire for hearty, delicious movie theater concession fare, but in a more healthy and humane way. Only 3 to 5 percent of the U.S. population is vegan, so it’s clearly evident that the rapid growth of vegan offerings from fast food outlets and the success of brands such as Beyond Meat—who in May shocked the financial world with an outrageously successful IPO—shows that vegan fare will appeal to the average moviegoer looking to replicate the in-theater gastronomical experience they’re accustomed to, but in a way that is good for themselves, the animals, and the planet.

JimAmos is COO of Scout 22, a marketing and P.R. agency that specializes in vegan, ethical, and conscious capitalist companies. Previously he spent over 20 years with Sony Pictures, four of which as president of domestic distribution. He also worked as head of sales at both Fathom Events and STX Entertainment. He is a regular contributor for Forbes, writing about the movie and music industries.

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