Cooling off: Summer brings refreshing concession alternatives

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Sometimes winter can feel very long, and the first quarter of 2011 was tough on everyone in the theatre industry. Attendance was below even modest expectations and the wait for the summer rescue felt endless.

But now that we have jumped out with the first of the summer blockbusters, things are heating up, calling for a cold beverage! Cold drinks are a great accompaniment to a hot day, and the choice of beverages in theatres has improved dramatically over the past few years. The range of choices is a tribute to the industry’s move towards diversification, and the effect goes directly to the bottom line.

I will start with the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, which is now distributed throughout most of the U.S. in various venues, and certainly in theatres. I know this because when I took my daughter and her ten friends to see Kung Fu Panda 2 for her birthday, I almost could not get them to their seats. They enjoyed the new machine tremendously and I’ll have to talk to Coke to share the statistical favorite…but the variety combination offers over 100 flavors after all is said and done and it seems to be a hit. Those of us who attended the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago recently can also attest to its popularity.

If you read any online blogs about this equipment and product, you can see that it is making a splash. It simply offers variety and choice, which is always a balancing act with the consumer. You don’t want to offer too much to create confusion, but choice often helps a person actually make a decision. The philosophy is that there are just enough options that “I should certainly be able to choose something.” Adding a flavor profile to an existing known soda flavor adds fun to the mix and gives the consumer a reason to buy a soda on the next visit—to try another flavor. Partnered with soda or with water, the ability to add flavor add lots of entertainment for the consumer that they will not get at home.

In Southern European countries, residents believe in drinking an espresso in the summertime. The varieties of coffee bars are also increasing. There was a plethora of coffee companies at the NRA show, and for good reason. Coffee is the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry, with a 7% annual growth rate. Some more fun facts about coffee: It represents 75% of all the caffeine consumed in the U.S., and Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee per day. With a population of roughly 315 million, that’s significant. It does start with breakfast in the home, but about 100 million people in the U.S. drink coffee every day, and about 30 million of them drink specialty coffees such as lattes or espresso, with café bars averaging 230 cups a day in sales.

Coffee is second only to water in consumption. It’s a viable beverage to offer in the theatre, and can be offered at the concession stand or in a standalone coffee bar. The toughest part of offering coffee is choosing the right vendor, the right operation, and the right marketing for the demographics of a specific theatre. But this is a good problem to solve, as the right program will increase the per-capita revenue of the theatre.

The other big category of beverage is of course the frozen variety! Frozen yogurt, milkshakes and slushy drinks are all on the rise in the theatre industry and they are showing up in many forms, with many different types of operations. Again, the difficulty will be choosing the right partner and the right program, but the possibilities are greater than ever. I have written about milkshakes and yogurts in the past, but the trend toward branding has reached this segment as well. For example, there was a frozen beverage company exhibiting at the NRA that had combined its yogurts and slushies with the flavors and branding rights of Jelly Belly beans. The marketing was impressive and the flavor profiles were intense.

The operational aspects of frozen beverages have also gotten easier, as the technology of the equipment takes a lot of the guesswork out of the operation and has improved the clean-up. Again, the choices can sometimes overwhelm, but equipment today is very versatile in its ability to serve multiple-flavor and multiple-thickness beverages.

The other option, of course, is to add alcohol and serve frozen cocktails. Alcohol is another fast-growing segment of the industry and deserving of its own space. But frozen cocktails, or even mocktails for the under-age crowd, are showing up in specialty theatres or specific areas of theatres. It’s another way to utilize the equipment, serving specialty drinks to promote certain films. Particularly with the blockbuster summer that we have lined up, we can certainly serve up some frozen fun.

New flavors, a variety of forms, hot or cold…all together, the beverage offerings in the theatre can be bold, exciting, fun and profitable. Choice and quality always deliver to the per-capita revenue, and the beverage segment of the theatre offering is absolutely key to a healthy bottom line. You might be able to go two hours in the dark without eating anything, but few people want to go that long without sipping on something. Putting together the right combination for a particular theatre is the hard work, and customer satisfaction is the payoff.

Please send comments to Anita Watts at anitaw@reactornet.com.