The movie theater’s lights dim. A man and woman sit cradled in a leather love seat–style recliner as the previews begin. A handful of black-clad waiters and waitresses scatter from the aisles, quietly, unobtrusively making their way out as the film rolls. The man and woman settle further into their seats and unfold napkins onto their laps. Before them is a sturdy foldout tray holding dinner and drinks: two gourmet cheeseburgers with sweet potato fries and a pair of ice-cold beers. Behind them sits a family of four, and while the kids munch on buttery popcorn and chocolate candy, mom and dad enjoy a fruit and cheese platter with a glass of crisp white wine.
Meanwhile, in the lobby, moviegoers stand in line at a grand concession stand, ordering slices of pizza and packaged salads to go with soft drinks. Past the line, there is a bar area where couples sit at high-top tables with mixed drinks in hand. The red tile wall of the bar offers a window into a kitchen where line cooks prepare hot entrée dishes for the next round of movie patrons, working quickly to ensure everyone gets served before the feature presentation.
Unseen to the moviegoers is the robust behind-the-scenes operation necessary for the seamless melding of two business concepts—the cinema and the restaurant—that is increasingly popular in modern movie theaters. As box office sales declined in the past decade, both large theater chains and independent cinemas sought out ancillary revenue streams, and the journey has led many to enhance a ubiquitous part of the movie-going experience: foodservice.
“When the cinema industry first was conceived, everyone saw it as a place to go and watch movie stars on the big screen, but then realized there was a need for snacks and food and beverage during the event,” says Larry Etter, director of education for the National Association of Concessionaires and senior vice president of theater services for 29-unit Malco Theatres. “As the expense for presenting films grew, secondary and ancillary revenue streams were created. You saw the development of concessions … to support the profit offset.”
Etter says movie theater foodservice has evolved greatly in recent years. Many theaters, he says, are taking a page from the restaurant industry’s playbook, offering upscale options at the concession stand and integrating both full-service and limited-service dining into the overall experience.
What approach a theater takes depends greatly on its location, the demographic it serves, and the surrounding competition, says Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners, a trade exhibition organization representing the movie theater industry.
“It’s something that’s been around for decades, that idea of brewpub second-run theaters once popular in the Northeast and in Texas. In the ’80s, it expanded a little bit when these concepts could get first-run movies,” he says. “Now we have national circuits getting interested in the idea.”
Just as many quick-serve innovations are rooted in full-service trends, the movie industry’s current foodservice landscape can trace its roots to concepts that aimed to replicate the casual-dining atmosphere with heartier food, alcohol, and a wait staff.Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which began as a second-run dine-in concept in 1997, is one example of an early movie-dining concept that’s embraced innovation and changed with the times.
“When Alamo first opened, foodservice was on the forefront of something we wanted to do. Originally, it was simple stuff like pizza and burgers,” says Trish Eichelberger, Alamo’s concept chef in the Austin market. She says that over the years, the concept has shifted to upscale entrée and snack offerings.
For example, at Alamo’s Slaughter Lane location in Austin, moviegoers can enjoy chips with white bean hummus or goat cheese and roasted red pepper for a snack. Burgers are available with beef, chicken, or veggie patties, and come with toppings like smoked bacon, arugula, queso blanco, and pesto. Salads, wraps, and gourmet pizzas are also available. Adults can indulge in wine, beer, cocktails, or alcoholic milkshakes.
“We try to pay attention to menu trends,” Eichelberger says. “Waiters come to guests before the feature starts, and we have a reserved seating system. We also have a flag system so there’s as little interaction between with waiters during the feature presentation [as possible].”
Like many quick-serve dining establishments, Alamo Drafthouse also stays on top of trends like local sourcing and consumers’ growing demand for fresh ingredients, Eichelberger says.
“One of my big goals for this year working out of our Austin market is to focus on more local food and reach out to local businesses and farmers,” she says. “We don’t want to seem like just any other chain that comes in, we want to have strong ties to the community. Later on this spring, we’re hoping to do a local special in the Austin market with pizza that features ingredients from local farmers markets.”
Alamo Drafthouse also specializes in themed cinematic dining events such as a “Broadway Brunch” featuring iconic musicals and “Afternoon Tea” featuring period pieces.
Its “Food & Film” events take the dining experience to the next level as guests get to indulge in multi-course meals that replicate food in the feature movie. For example, Alamo’s Slaughter Lane location offered a spicy four-course meal with seafood and wine pairings to coincide with Marilyn Monroe’s Some Like It Hot.
Eichelberger says she gets to work with movie studios for some of these events to create an authentic experience.
“We were lucky enough to work closely with Fox Searchlight [on a ‘Food & Film’ event] for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel to get some really in-depth information about the food and the film well before it came out,” she says. “That’s our major advantage—as you start to see how much detail and how authentic we want to make the experience for the customer, [movie studios] are becoming more willing to work with us.”
Full-service dining dominated the most recent wave of movie theater innovation. CinéBistro, which first opened in Miami in 2008 as a satellite concept of traditional 18-unit chain Cobb Theatres, is one such example of a cinema restaurant concept that seeks to compete with high-end, white-tablecloth establishments.
“We identified a niche of a moviegoer who really cut down on the amount of time they were going to a movie or eliminated it altogether because of what a traditional movie-going experience has become nowadays, which is very crowded and sometimes rowdy,” says Fred Meyers, CinéBistro’s executive director.
He says CinéBistro answers the needs of adult moviegoers—patrons must be 21 to enter—looking for a consolidated but high-quality movie experience with chef-inspired food, attentive table service, and cocktails, all under one roof. Dinner is served during a pre-show at the seven current CinéBistro locations, and each theater boasts a menu overseen by an executive chef.
At the original Miami location, guests—who must arrive 30 minutes prior to show time for in-theater service—can enjoy appetizers like Wagyu Sliders, Pork Belly Skewers, and Shrimp Lettuce Cups. Entrée options include Sesame Crusted Tuna with an edamame-avocado purée and jicama cilantro slaw; Churrasco Steak with roasted tomato chimichurri sauce, black bean rice, and plantain crisps; and Buttermilk Fried Chicken with mashed potatoes and bacon and Cheddar waffles.
The menu also includes an array of burgers, light sandwiches, salads, and desserts. Food options range in price from $9.50 for the least-expensive appetizer, Smoked Chicken Banh Mi Sliders, to $22.50 for the Roasted Snapper Mojito, a fish entrée.
“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.”