Menu First, Design Next: Today’s new food offerings bring a vast array of changes

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Research shows that before the year 2010 nearly 50% of all concession sales came from sodas, approximately 30% of came from popcorn, and confections represented about 12% of the sales mix, with the remaining sales in “other” foods. These numbers made it relatively easy to design a concession facility. But the focus in today’s world has changed dramatically and managers of theatres now face changes in preparation areas and foodservice commissaries.

In today’s sales mix calculations, sodas have lost 25% of their sales to adult beverages; popcorn has given up nearly 30% of its tender to other foods. What this means is that the concession stand of old is being replaced by preparation pantries and full-service kitchens to accommodate the larger-scale foodservice deliveries.

In many cases, theatres are being challenged to convert backrooms into production plants. This is contrary to good planning. Jack Muffoletto, principal at TK Architects, believes “decisions on equipment that come too late or get changed during construction cost everybody money.” In every case, it is proper to develop a menu first, then design the preparation facility to accommodate those requirements. The current reality is that the building is already constructed and the ultimate challenge is to insert stainless steel, ovens, fryers, exhaust hoods and assembly areas where shelves, storage racks and janitorial supplies once dominated the room.

Conditions in the 2017 cinematic experience now require deeper concentration in the world of culinary arts. The competitive nature of cinema has brought the gastronomic event into play—meaning, owners and operators are using their personal recipes and creative style to enrich the movie experience. The complicated facts are such that most epicurean experiences necessitate time and delicacies that cinema managers are not familiar with, such as extended prep time set in a brightly lit room with plenty of occasion to converse—contrary to the cinema lobby where patrons rush to get food, then the best seats, grab what used to be snacks where they could, then settle into a rocker and take in the show. 

Now that the revolution has occurred, it is important that cinema owners understand that to be efficient in this new era and offer the exemplary experience, consideration should be given to multiple facets so that the execution from kitchen to patron can exceed the guest expectation. To do this, the facility needs proper design. Easy in, easy out! The menu should be developed first, so that the appropriate cooking methods are implemented. One must consider utilities, space and cost of equipment when designing a menu. The menu should always consider merging the experience with the entertainment factor.

I have asked three of the industry’s most successful designers to give their recommendations regarding these key elements—

Space: Bruce Proctor, president of Proctor Companies, emphasizes that for every two feet of front-of-the-house space, one square foot of back of the house is needed to provide adequate preparation and service. “The menu drives the bus,” states Proctor. Every menu will be different; however, the menu determines what kind of cooking devices are required and the size of the equipment needed.

Alcohol Service: When designing the bar area, it is critical to know the bar menu as well. Will it be beer and wine only or a full-service bar? One may require plumbing devices, hand sinks, glass tenders. Beer only may only require coolers and chillers. The amount of service space will be determined by the anticipated headcounts and ticket sales. It would not be prudent to offer a four-foot bar in a facility that seats 3,000 patrons, nor would it be wise to have a 60-foot bar in the round for the theatre with 400 seats. “Don’t forget the empty kegs need a home,” Proctor adds. Empty kegs cannot block fire exits or stairwells.  

Utilities: The menu will decide the equipment necessary, the equipment will determine the utilities required. Mechanical devices such as vent-a-hoods and make-up air must be measured and balanced. Using electrical equipment will produce foods at a more economical price, but slower cook times reduce production. Gas equipment requires plumbers and conduit normally not found in concession stands. You must consider the MEPs. Muffoletto even prompts us to “keep in mind where the added bulk CO2 tanks will be positioned.”

Cooking Practices: In the world of culinary arts, you are taught there are two basic means of cooking, either wet or dry. The menu item will determine if you are baking, as in pizzas, or frying in oil, with items such as chicken tenders. It can be even more complicated since there are five various ways to cook “wet,” such as steaming, sautéing, boiling, frying or basting. Each of these methods requires different cooking apparatus.

Holding Times: Now that the food has been prepared, it is no longer going to be served immediately; much like popcorn or pretzels, it will require a resting place. Therefore, allowances must be given for warming plates, heat lamps and expediting stations. Brett Kelly, national sales manager for Vivian Companies, continues this thought, noting, “It is important not to forget a food-holding strategy. Getting the food cooked is easy, but keeping it hot and fresh until it is served to the customer might be more important when it comes to the overall experience.”

Traffic Flow: Another often overlooked consideration is the flow and throughput—not only of the employees but also the efficient relay from food station to food station. Restaurants have always taught: In on the right, out on the right. The food preparation must also consider similar dynamics. The systematic exit from the kitchen must be inherited to keep the flow of prepared items moving seamlessly out to the patrons.

Storage: Now that menus have expanded, so have the ingredients. Proper storage must be integrated into the design of the kitchen. As Brett Kelly states, “Never underestimate the importance of storage. You can never have too much dry, cold, or even secured storage.” That includes easy access into the pantries, added refrigeration for fresh ingredients, and larger freezers to hold the masses of fries and jalapeño poppers. Companies such as Proctor process the handling of materials before they design a bank of storage.  

Cleanup: Sanitation becomes far more complicated with the extended menus. Are the service items disposable or are dish machines now required? If dish machines are being used, have you planned for drying areas for the clean utensils before they are sent to the “expediter”? Then, have you considered added space for the chemicals and sanitizers for these plates and glassware? Muffoletto also reminds everyone that “the health department likes hand sinks, while they take up valuable space, but it’s better to get approval by the agency in advance.” 

Trash Removal: New amounts of waste are being established with the onset of bigger menus. Have you prearranged ways to dispose of leftover foods? Bigger dumpsters mean larger dumpster pads. The garbage leaving the facility will weigh more, requiring added ramps and even loading and unloading docks.

Efficient designs lend to better throughput. Bruce Proctor emphasizes: “Getting buy-in before it’s too late from the operation team or chef is key to a successful food and beverage operation. Planning exercises by professionals is crucial to creating the profit center you deserve.”

Larry Etter is senior vice president at Malco Theatres and director of education at the National Association of Concessionaires.