What Do Cinema Patrons Want? Is high quality more important than healthy?

Snack Corner

It has been reported ad nauseam that everyone wants healthier food options, not only in theatres but in all foodservice outlets. Introduction of carb-free candies, lower-calorie beverages, less sugar, more fiber…the industry has heard it all.

It would be prudent for cinema operators to determine what their customers want before they make any menu changes. A wise start would be to review what is selling and what is not. Fluctuations in purchasing habits are common, and the best-managed operations consistently pull items from the menu that are not selling regardless of what the national numbers report. If you offer healthier options in the concession stand, how many are you actually selling versus a specific brand of candy (to take one example)? If the sales are higher than a popular brand, then that would suggest the healthy option is preferred. When surveyed, the average consumer will say they “want” to eat healthy—but “want” and “purchase” are not always defined as the same. In a recent study, a marketing company surveyed theatre patrons as they entered the lobby, and a majority stated they wanted healthy items sold at the concession stand. Immediately following the interview, they were given coupons for free concessions, and over 95% of those surveyed bought candy and carbonated beverages with their coupons, in direct opposition to their responses—even though healthy options were available. Do not be moved by comments and verbal requests; analyze the sales data.

Next step: Test, then retest, and test again. Sometimes items such as beef jerky can be tested and have negative results in a theatre, yet retail and grocery data reflects high sales and a movement toward a snack item. It is possible the test was flawed, or marketing materials were poor, or supplies were insufficient, or the pricing was too high. It may not be the product, but the presentation.

When movie patrons ask for healthier options, define what they mean. Do they mean healthy or higher quality? There is a difference. Nutritional analysis is a bit quirky. Higher-quality ingredients—less fat, for example—can produce a better product in meat items or sausages. Free-range chicken breast has a different connotation than grilled chicken breast. “Made with trans-fat-free oils” has a value proposition. Coconut oil vs. canola oil means higher price, and healthier and unique attributes. It is possible your patrons are saying one thing but preferring “quality” over “healthy.”

Gary Butske, VP of Michigan-based theatre circuit Emagine Entertainment, believes today’s moviegoers want “a little bit of both.” He cites the example of olive oil as popcorn oil: “It is not only healthy, but higher in quality”—and of course more expensive. Butske feels that that “patrons now perceive pre-packaged items as low quality, even if it is of a healthy nature.” Emagine Entertainment, he notes, offers “handmade food items” (made from scratch) to emphasize the quality and freshness of their fare. In summation, he states, “Healthy can be an option, but quality must be the standard.”

Dan Herrle, director of concessions and Mid-Atlantic operations for Bow Tie Cinemas, has a similar opinion. “We make every effort to offer the highest-quality products and still complement the entertainment experience. We use Odell’s Real Butter toppings, all-white-meat chicken tenders, and Eisenberg 100% Angus beef hot dogs.”  We believe the movie patron expects certain snacks, such as candy and sodas, to complement the experience.”

While his circuit has not fully engaged in in-theatre dining options, Herrie says that “Bow Tie will be building new facilities with broader menu selections.” Not only will the innovative menu options be of higher quality, he affirms, but the equipment of the future will be more specific to improved presentations. Items like high-heat ovens for pizzas that will reach temps of up to 800 degrees F will match the fire-brick ovens offered by restaurants. He adds, “The real profits remain with popcorn and sodas, and the theatre owner should be offering the highest-quality popcorn and very best carbonated beverages.” He points to natural spring water as a higher-quality as well as healthier option at Bow Tie.    

If you choose to present healthier options, make sure you know why. Specific food categories address specific needs—for example, gluten-free popcorn. Suppling non-essential options that are reported as healthy do nothing for the menu or the business. Adding items just to say “We have healthy” will do more harm than good. If there are healthy options, announce them and be sure they match your entertainment package. Bottled water or sodas with no dye components such as Sprite or Sierra Mist have positive implications. Organic green tea does as well; however, which one will impact a teenager or a mom with kids more?

The movement toward spirits and wines complicates this issue as well. Surveys show adults want alcoholic options, yet I am not sure of the health additives in these beverages. This appears to be a contradiction with the “healthy request.” Maybe the inference is that adults want to be treated like adults?

Finally, if you choose to offer a selection of “better for you” items, be sure to declare what you are doing. Is it possible to have a menu board labeled “better for you” items? Can you designate areas where the healthy options are presented first and foremost? Can you designate signage on the menu boards with language such as All these items are under 250 calories, or trans-fat free?

As theatres transition from common concession fare to the next generation of snacks and food options, try to ensure that you have gathered the right amount of information to proceed; change for the sake of change is not productive. Any changes to the menu fare, whether healthier or higher in quality, should be significant enough to support the cinema brand and message.