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“The value proposition is the most critical, and because CinéBistro is unique, I think there’s a high level of value in the experience people have with us,” Meyers says. “I think people are willing to spend their money; they’re more cautious about what they spend it on, but they certainly are able and willing to do so when there’s a real value to their experience.”
Etter says his idea of the theater foodservice value equation has a lot to do with presentation and perception. A more enhanced dining presentation in a cinema gives theater owners the ability to charge a competitive premium, but presentation can trickle down to less fancy concepts.
“You can put out hot dogs in something better than a foil wrapper to get 50 cents or $1 more,” he says. “You’ll see soft pretzels presented in bakery boxes in the future, as opposed to just served on a wax paper. That makes it look like it’s fresh, made for you, and something special.”
This type of detailed upscaling, Etter says, also lends itself to movie theaters that may not be able or willing to make an investment in full-service dining—opportunity lies in a limited-service model, too.
“Quick serves have done a great job showing our industry that the kinds of items they serve—burgers, chicken tenders, sandwiches—are as much snacks as they are full meals,” Etter says. “So when you sit in a movie theater for two hours watching a film, you do not necessarily want to eat a meal, but more of a snack.”
His chain, Malco Theatres, offers a diversified foodservice package depending on the demographics of each location. “We have what we call a luxury theater, where we have a wine bar and a stronger food menu with heartier items,” he says.
These heartier items include Fish & Chips or a Ham & Cheese Croissant for $7.50, Toasted Ravioli with marinara for $6.25, and Spanakopita for $6.25. Beer and wine is available for $7–$8 per glass.
CinéBistro’s parent company, Cobb Theatres, applied what it learned about foodservice to traditional cinemas, launching a fast-casual service style where guests order food items in a café setting but can bring them into the auditorium with them, Meyers says.
The first of these opened in Leesburg, Virginia, in 2011. That location’s menu features classics like soft pretzels, funnel cake, and nachos alongside appetizers like crab dip, Sweet-Chili Glazed Shrimp, and Popcorn Chicken & Shrimp. Available entrées include salads, pizza, and sandwiches. Also offered are Café Fries with a variety of toppings like Applewood Bacon & Housemade Queso; Cheddar, Tomato & Jalapeños; and Smoked Pulled Pork & Queso.
“The natural progression has been to more quality and variety and an emphasis on making food more fresh and more expansive,” Meyer says of Cobb’s decision to offer more upscale menu items. “People recognize quality today more than they did in the past because the restaurant industry has become more mainstream. As the consumer gets educated, they’re looking for places to apply that. The movie theater industry was perfectly primed to take that next step.”
Cinema giant AMC Theatres took that next step in 2008 with investment in its Dine-In Theatres. Most of its 13 Dine-In locations are akin to full-service restaurants, says Jennifer Douglass, vice president of dine-in theater operations, but AMC is now exploring fast casual in the Colorado market with its Red Kitchen concept.
Opened in March, Red Kitchen was created through a partnership with renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, founders of Shake Shack. Douglass says technology plays an important role in that operation.
“It’s more limited service in the sense that we have iPads where guests place their order and make payment,” she says.
The menu includes hot panini sandwiches, wraps, gourmet hot dogs, salads, and platters like the Roasted Vegetable Skewers Platter and the BBQ Pulled Pork Platter. Douglass says Red Kitchen is also AMC’s first concept with an open kitchen, and menu development was done with that in mind.
“We tried to find things that would be visually appealing for the guest to watch be prepared,” she says. “In terms of why we wanted to do a fast casual, it’s consistent with what’s growing in the restaurant industry, and we take food and the kitchen just as seriously. It also gives us more flexibility in where we can take our Dine-In program.”
The next location for Red Kitchen has yet to be announced, but AMC’s corporate team has plans for expansion, she says.
Unlike AMC, Cobb, and Malco, Texas-based Movie Tavern was created in 2001 with foodservice at top of mind, says director of marketing, Danny Digiacomo. Movie Tavern employs a wait staff, but its menu boasts classic quick-serve restaurant staples like chicken wings, jalapeño poppers, pizza, burgers, and sandwiches. The adult beverage menu includes draft and bottled beer ranging in price from $3.75 to $10 for a premium option.
Movie Tavern also offers a breakfast menu at several locations, available for 9 a.m. feature showtimes on Saturdays and Sundays. Guests can enjoy waffles, a breakfast burrito, biscuits with gravy, oatmeal and fruit, and more.
“We’ve added all sorts of offerings that are chef inspired,” Digiacomo says. “We look at what consumers are enjoying in the casual-dining space and add those items to the menu.”
Its original location served the Fort Worth, Texas, area, and the concept has grown to 17 units across the South and East Coast. When the concept first launched, executives expected to face complex challenges most theaters don’t experience, Digiacomo says.
“The operation of running a dining experience while you’re running a movie theater is very complex, so the way we approach our service is we start with training,” he says. “We have an entire department devoted to an entire training experience. We bring different employees in—servers, runners, kitchen staff, box office attendees, management, regional management—before the movie theater even opens to the public.”
Alamo’s Eichelberger says the staff behind the scenes is key to a smooth operation, and training is extensive, particularly for managers, who should be ready to tackle any job, from fixing a projector to working on a fryer.
“In terms of how quickly we’re putting out food and the volume we do it at, we need the right restaurant people in addition to the right cinema people,” AMC’s Douglass says. “There’s no playbook for what we’re doing, so we have to write that as we go. That’s a big challenge, and it can be a lot of fun.”
The National Association of Theatre Owners’ Corcoran says theater operators should understand that foodservice in the cinema isn’t an add-on, but a separate business one has to concentrate on and excel at.
When done right, it can mean big profitability and a safety net for when the movie industry isn’t booming, Eichelberger says.
“Movies don’t stay in the theaters nearly as long nowadays, so I think to build that experience around movie-going or a movie date night is the biggest challenge for theaters now,” she says. Alamo is affected differently by box-office decline, she says, because of the dining experience it’s able to offer.
Etter says he expects more theaters to turn to foodservice for ancillary revenue, either through in-theater restaurant concepts or with better items at the concession stand. While popcorn and soda may always reign, consumers expect more, he says.
“I’ve long believed all of us have cross pollinated with the foodservice industry—airports are taking trends from ballparks; ballparks are using concepts from movie theaters; movie theaters are using concepts from quick serves,” Etter says. “And in effect, we’re all borrowing and integrating those foodservice principles to add value to what our presentations are. I think it’s healthy for all of us financially.”