Get in line for bigger, better, faster movie food
By Ellen Fox
MARCH 28, 2000: "Fresh fruit was a disaster," Marc Pascucci sighs over the phone from his office in New York. The senior vice president of marketing for LoewsCineplex Entertainment is reminiscing about the ill-fated time when the cinema giant tried to cash in on healthy food trends by stocking fresh fruit at movie theaters in Greenwich Village and on the Upper West Side.
Nature prevailed, mushiness ensued, and the innovation was canned in just two weeks. Don't even ask about the time they tried sandwiches. "As much as people say they want something healthy at the movies," he notes sagely, "they don't."
That was eight years ago, but ten cinemas are still trying -- today, perhaps, with greater success -- to improve upon the classic popcorn-and-soda combo that still ranks above candy and any variety of treats as the best-selling concessions at movie theaters.
The new, stadium-seating General Cinemas City North 14 boasts high-speed, high-temp Turbo Chef ovens that can cook a refrigerated, pre-made pizza in roughly eighty seconds. No more five-minute wait or greasy heat lamps, chortles GC spokesman Brian Callaghan. Over at Lakeview's Landmark Century Centre Cinema, which will specialize in arthouse films, the selections are appropriately more artsy.
Popcorn-eaters can shake on flavored toppings like sour-cream-and-chive, white cheddar and brewer's yeast. "You've never had brewer's yeast on popcorn?" exclaims General Manager Brian Ross. "It's the rave!" he raves, adding that it's done very well in Landmark's L.A. and Denver outlets. In addition to soft drinks and the now-standard yupscale cappuccino bar, the menu will include gourmet fruit juice blends like peach-papaya, all-natural Cloud 9 chocolate bars in flavors of Oregon red raspberry and cool mint crisp ("not your typical Hershey bar," Ross says), Haagen-Dazs ice cream and locally-prepared baked goods, perhaps from Southport's Sweet Mysteries.
There will be German gummy bears, but Landmark's really not expecting a Sour Patch Kids demographic. "The art crowd [doesn't] eat quite as much of the commercial fare and generally we do not have films that appeal to the child or the family," Ross explains. "We'd like to have wine at some point," he adds.
Why can't theaters just leave a good thing alone? "People want more, they want all the options," Ross figures. "I can't tell you how many times somebody has walked in our theater and they've wanted nachos."
With America's moviegoing populace having less time to grab or prepare a meal elsewhere and getting more demanding about "having it my way," many new theaters are gearing up to become everybody's one-stop food-and-entertainment destination. But, at heart, the expansion of cinematic food offerings has, as usual, much to do with the bottom line.
The rampant belief (usually offered to a friend who just paid $4.75 for a small box of popcorn) that movie theaters make all their money from concessions is a myth, but it still remains an essential chunk of revenues: General Cinema's Callaghan put the number around a third of revenue; another business hand said it was more like half. And while ticket sales are usually split in the distributor's favor, concessions are pure profit.
Aside from the recent advancements in high-speed food prep, there's also the issue of space: Older theaters simply didn't have room at their concession stands to sling chicken tenders, curly fries and popcorn shrimp. But the more screens you find at your new, pricey megaplex, the more choices it's bound to offer -- and the bigger the theater's motivation is to find inventive ways of making just about everyone help pay for the real estate.
"It's the fact that we are building megaplexes, we have more common space," says Pascucci, "and we have to make that space work for us financially."
And it is working. At Loews theaters, where patrons can get fast food cooked-to-order -- like the Streets of Woodfield, which opened last November-per capita spending is up by 30 percent, he says.
And hot on the heels of General Cinema's first-class Premium Cinema offering -- where discriminating Yorktown patrons can choose from a full bar and eat a sit-down-meal in a small, posh theater -- Loews is rolling out its own VIP digs. The "Loews Club" concept, which will premiere in Pittsburgh this May, will offer skybox-style reserved seating in a selection of auditoriums, a special waiting area with a bar and menu, and coatcheck for a likely premium of $5.
In the meantime, you can expect most of the large theater chains to spice up their offerings at the stand, with kid's combos ("We did one with a Stuart Little watch in it and it just went through the roof," Pascucci raves), teen combos, chicken-and-fries combos, maybe even combo-combos.
"The wave of the future is just figuring how to do more specialty foods. It's about speed and quality and it's very hard to meld the two things. And as the cooking equipment becomes more sophisticated, we'll be able to do it," Pascucci affirms. "Nobody wants to wait."
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