Soda, popcorn, and candy have long been staples of the movie theater industry, but with ticket sales dropping and home-theater equipment improving, some cinema operations are expanding their foodservice options to appeal to more consumers.

While the dinner-and-a-movie concept makes perfect sense to the guest, however, it’s proved to be a dramatic show for some operators.

AMC Theatres in Kansas City, Missouri, finds it easy to hire great theater managers and capable kitchen managers, “but finding people who can put both of those together is tough,” says Justin Scott, director of public relations for the company. Seven of AMC’s 375 theatres have foodservice operations, with the possibility of expanding to 35 more in the next three years.

Guest counts are predictable and staggered at restaurants, but at large multiscreen movie theaters, 800 people could sit down at the same time on a Friday or Saturday night and order food from their theater seats. “It’s like upscale restaurant meets banquet catering,” Scott says.

Among the 5,8000 theaters across the country, nearly 400 offer more than snacks, says Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners, based in Washington, D.C. Some have upped their concessions to include fried foods, while others serve trendy casual-dining fare to guests seated in reclining chairs who call wait staffs with a button on their armrests.

“Until the late ’90s, you couldn’t get a first-run [movie] to play in a theater that served food. Studios thought it would be distracting. They wanted the movie to be the centerpiece,” Corcoran says. Disney, however, debuted a movie-and-food combo in the late ’90s and found that the two went together perfectly.

But Corcoran is not quick to call movies and foodservice a match made in cinema heaven. “It’s doing two businesses, and you have to do both well. There are complications to it. Developing a system is thought-intensive,” he says.

AMC hired two A-list foodservice executives to make it work. In 2010, it picked off Yum! Brands’ KFC executive George Patterson to become senior vice president of food and beverage, overseeing functions including concession optimization and in-theatre dining expansion. Jason Henderson, director of theatre dining, was previously corporate chef for Applebee’s International. Now he oversees menu development and execution for AMC’s dine-in theatres.

AMC’s foodservice falls more in the casual-dining genre with such menu items as flatbread pizzettas, quesadillas, smoked salmon BLT sandwiches, Thai coconut chicken tenders, and bistro chicken mac and cheese.

Guests can order these items at the bar, in the Fork & Screen theatre (with a $10 “experience” charge in addition to the movie charge and the food charge), or in the more upscale Cinema Suites where guests must be at least 21 years old. For a $15 experience charge, the Cinema Suites menu has a few additional items, the seats are plush recliners with more space, and guests receive mints, gourmet popcorn, and a hot towel.

All details have been carefully choreographed. Chunky food is bite-size for easy handling in the dark, Henderson says. The plates are plastic composite to avoid noisy clanging. Servers, who can pop in and out at the whim of a guest’s call button, are careful to crouch, whisper, and wear black. They don’t whip out their handheld LED screen devices to record the order until they round the corner.

While AMC is one of the biggest actors in movie foodservice, others have their own renditions.

Muvico Entertainment, based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, added its first fryer, TurboChef oven, and walk-in freezer to one of its nine theaters in the late ’90s. Its concessions sold popcorn shrimp, cheese sticks, chicken wings and tenders, fries, and pizza initially, and a similar line-up remains in each of its theaters.    

Although the set-up isn’t as elaborate as AMC, it still requires more mature staff than regular movie concessions do, says Mike Stover, regional manager in charge of concessions. More training is required, he says, including food safety.

Seven of AMC's 375 theatres have foodservice operations, with the possibility of expanding to 35 more in the next three years.

Regarding the menu selection, Stover says that finger foods always win, as do items that hold heat longer for the periodic nibbling that goes on in the theater. Breaded curly fries, for example, hold heat longer than regular fries, he says.

Stover is surprised that more healthful items, like dried and fresh apples and fruit drinks, do not sell well, even though guests have indicated an interest in healthier offerings.  

Next, Muvico will look into adding more sweets—perhaps funnel cakes or fried brownie bites.

Two of Muvico’s theaters have a full-scale restaurant inside, Bogart’s Bar & Grill, with casual restaurant fare and pricing.

Eight theaters strong, IPic Entertainment, based in Boca Raton, Florida, operates full-restaurant kitchens, each with its own trained executive and sous chef using fresh, local ingredients when possible. Its “concessions,” Tanzy Express, serves such items as crispy calamari, filet sliders, beef carpaccio, and rosemary-lemon grilled chicken skewers.

All the seats are reserved seats, so there’s no pressure to find and hold a spot. Rather, patrons can come early to visit and order food, or they can order from their seats. “With people’s home theaters getting more robust, they need a better reason to step outside. We give them that reason,” says Mark Mulcahy, vice president of marketing for the company.

IPic patrons are encouraged to become loyalty members. Free membership perks include discounts and event invitations. “It helps us market to consumers who enjoy the experience we offer,” Mulcahy says. The theaters also have a bar, and a few of the theaters operate a fine-dining restaurant called Tanzy next to the theater with a completely different menu.

“We want the whole night to unwind in a fashion that is stress-free for a better night out with friends and family,” Mulcahy says.

Jody Shee is a regular contributor to QSR.
Photo courtesy of IPic Entertainment.
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