Real Food! Theatre concession operations broaden their offerings

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Snack Corner

Have you noticed that real food has infiltrated our concession bar? It used to be dominated by sweets and snacks and now you can find full meals such as pizza and chicken tenders. But you can also find something else: vegetables, meat and bread, close to the items you might find at your own home table for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Before you call me crazy, let’s dig in.

The concession stand has become more varied over the last decade, with many things tried, some successfully. But the nature of the concession stand has also changed, in the sense that you can now see a wider range of available products from a categorization standpoint. Instead of five new candies, you have five new products across the food spectrum. We have reviewed the widening of the concession stand in many ways; this month, I want to look at the strange acceptance of some items that will surprise you.

Pickles are as common as potato chips when ordering a sandwich. But in Texas, we like a really big pickle, individually packaged in brine, that we can eat in the cinema. I wrote about the phenomenon of pickles in Texas a few years back, but now they have grown outside Texas. It’s not really something where you think, “Huh, I’ll go to the movies and order a pickle.” But pickle sales have grown sizably over the last few years and now you non-Texans can also find them. Don’t knock ’em until you’ve tried ’em…

Edamame has been served in Asian cinemas for a long time. It is a popular snack and an easy item to choose for an Asian cinema. But now it has found its way into cinemas in the U.S. and it enjoys an audience, albeit a small one. It’s a vegetable that can be an easy snack to package in dry form and it’s a very healthy alternative for both consumers and media-savvy exhibitors. With the right salt or flavoring, edamame has become an interesting snack choice to make the cut. Well outside its normal bounds, it’s moved into the snack category and made the jump into mainstream acceptability.

Beef jerky has done the same thing. Considered for a long time to be a protein supplement, a must-have for hiking and outdoor activities, beef jerky has become a very popular snack for school lunches, snacks between meals, and a definite option for movie cinemas. With many different flavor profiles and a high mark on the health chart, it is a great item for cinemas to offer customers and feel good about it. Beef jerky is a healthy alternative that people actually will order.

Bread has made its way into cinemas in a variety of ways: pretzels, cinnamon rolls, cookies, paninis, sub sandwiches. Whether it is the sweet variety or the more substantial meal, bread is on the menu now. It has always been there with hot dogs, of course, but we all know that was the sideshow to the dog itself. But not anymore: We have full waffles being sold in some cinemas and the waffle is the show. Pretzels have been popular for some time now and we have them in many varieties. All of these items put some carbs on the menu, and have to compete with the candy and popcorn. They seem to be a fully accepted category of menu expansion.

So what is happening when we have vegetables, meat and bread at the concession stand? Not at the restaurant…at the concession stand? It means that variety rules and we are trying to expand our concession stand beyond the beautiful simplicity of that popcorn and candy. That ever-elusive 60% of patrons who walk by and do not order anything continues to beckon us. We are determined to find a way to reach them. Maybe it’s the wait time, maybe it’s technology, or maybe it’s the items themselves. But no one can say that we are not trying everything, because we are.

The menu-labeling initiative and health issues in general also come into play with some of these items. Edamame and beef jerky are some of the healthier snack items you can eat, in general, and we are offering them. The calorie counts, the serving sizes, and the category of food itself all come together to present the consumer with a wider variety of choices than they have ever had. Will they gradually move away from popcorn and soda? That is highly, and hotly, debated. But if you want to go to a movie theatre and get something resembling real table food, you can get it now. Whether you choose to buy it or not remains up to you. That is, as always, the million-dollar question. What will the consumer choose?

Send your comments to Anita Watts at anitaW@reactornet.com.