Changing of the Guard: It’s no longer concessions but foodservice

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Snack Corner

If you have ever been so fortunate to witness the changing of the guard at London’s Buckingham Palace, you were likely amazed at the pageantry and tradition it displays. Maybe you have seen the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery; it is disciplined and somber with respect and dignity. Here at Film Journal International, we are seeing Anita Watts lay down her pen and get some rest as a new editor attempts to fill her glamourous shoes. At the same time, there’s another “changing of the guard” happening in our business, as the cinema concession stand lays a new foundation for future efforts.

I am amazed at the growth and evolution of the world’s concession operations. It’s no longer about hot dogs and popcorn and candy and soda; it’s about the experience! The conversion of our facilities is resulting in something more like an eatery than a concession operation. Whatever opinions you have about this transformation, it is happening nonetheless.

The “concession stand” has often had negative connotations—maybe because it was originally designed for speed of service, fun food and convenience, the overall perception was an unhealthy, unsanitary and simple operation, with little regard for consumer amenities. It was all sugar, no spice!

It is vital for the cinema operator to understand the importance of changing the public’s mental image. It is our responsibility to educate the concession patron as to the reliability, the creativity and the professionalism within the ranks of this channel of business. There is a changing of the guard (i.e., conditions of service) in movie theatres. What was once a prime profit center, carbonated beverages at the concessions stand, is becoming a focal point for adult beverages, spirits, wines and beer. The highly sustainable “popcorn” is being traded for salads and sushi. The third component, candy, is being augmented by ice cream shops, frozen yogurt and pastries.

It is apparent that the exhibition industry is leaving the arena of simple snacks and “concessions” for the glamourous indulgences of hearty menus, full-service entrees and QSR-type menus. Therefore, we cannot call our snack operation a concessions stand anymore, as we are now committed to recreational foodservice.

We are attempting to “build” a memorable overall experience that mirrors the entertainment experience the guest expects from the event they are attending. Cosmopolitans at the Sex and the City opening, dry martinis at Spectre, champagne popping at Magic Mike—theseall match the intended experience of the movie patron.

What are the causes that are inspiring these changes? First, competition! The competitive edge to deliver more than any other theatre operator is the necessary motivation. The theatre owner now must compete with every other discretionary recreation outlet to compensate for the investments across the exhibition structure.  Next, innovation! Today’s exhibitor has spent millions of dollars improving the presentation of the film, the seating in the auditoriums, and the sound in the speakers; therefore, the foodservice must match that experience. Third, eating habits! The eating habits of moviegoers are changing and it is no longer sufficient to offer simple sugars and popcorn as entertainment.

The result is new menus, technological advances, and changes in delivery services. The past student of concession operations was taught that the maximum number of items on the selection list was between 12 and 15. Now theatres are offering full-slate menus with four pages of items, along with a wine list and cocktail menus. It is common now to witness employees meeting patrons in the lobby and auditoriums with tablet devices, taking orders and sending messages to offsite locations for preparation. The movie patron can expect to be served food and beverages in their seat by employees. All of these amenities change the operational efficiencies that were once the cornerstone of the concession stand. While these practices build revenues, they also cost money and the question needs to be asked: Are we performing better on the P & L or competing with ourselves for the sake of competing?

The struggle is to understand what patrons want. It is no longer satisfactory to just serve a snack. The foodservice must be unique, less mass-produced in advance, freshly prepared. It is supposed to add polish to the movie event. People want substance, they want quality beyond average ingredients. The movie guest now desires a certain value proposition that merges pricing and discretionary time. This industry is now being challenged to deliver foodservice that competes with local restaurants and create a “one-stop shop”–dinner and a movie! These latest trends mean that theatres will have heartier menus, healthier options and adult beverages, all while maintaining a certain ease of implementation.

Not only are the food offerings growing, but the numbers of points of interaction are too! VIP lounges are becoming commonplace, adding exclusivity for a fee. Sandwich shops, pizza cafés and coffee bars are now being built into the lobbies of theatres. Some theatre owners are expanding the food and beverage operations to full-service restaurants that have revolutionized what was once known as a lobby. These changes are being made, these components, in the name of retention: the means and methods to keep patrons in the building and entice them to spend their money. Anyone remember video arcades?

It is possible to replace or reposition people or things, yet the objective remains the same. In cinemas, the objective is to optimize the entertainment experience. Enhance the stress-free environment so that patrons and guests can escape their daily routine. Food and beverage services have become the ancillary means to complete the theatrical performance. Bigger chairs, recliners, more legroom and wider aisles lead to comfort, which leads to higher expectations of supplemental conditions, including restrooms, lobby spaces and foodservice offerings. The days of simple concession services are becoming a relic of the past, as change of presentation is upon us. Much like the change from silent movies to “talkies,” from 35mm film to digital, from digital to laser projection, there is a changing of the guard in foodservice–concessions to full foodservice. “We’ve come a long way, baby.”I wonder what my grandfather would have said when asked if he would like a whiskey sour before the show?

Postscript: We will miss former concessions editor Anita Watts and her inspirational writing style. Anita has entertained us for 17 years with professional opinions, insights and provocative views that educated us more often than not. Let’s not forget the past but relish her achievements!

Larry Etter is director of education at the National Association of Concessionaires and senior VP, food service, at Malco Theatres.