Fried, baked...and sold! Innovations in preparation are expanding menu choices
The cinema concession stand has evolved into much more than a few select snack items, just as the lobby has transformed itself from being just an empty holding space. The introduction of cafés, bars and full-blown restaurants has expanded the ability of the cinema to offer a wider variety of products and experiences to the consumer. At the concession stand, another type of hybrid offering is gaining momentum and acceptance thanks to improved operational capability: fried and baked foods.
Offering chicken fingers, French fries or pizza isn’t exactly new or revolutionary. These items have been present in cinemas over the past decade, and have had limited success in some high-volume theatres. What is new and exciting is that the operational ability to offer these types of food has greatly increased, with higher quality product and equipment. The old problems of slow cook times, short hold times for cooked product, and space constraints have been addressed with technology advances in ovens and improved product ingredients.
Fried foods such as chicken fingers and hamburgers and French fries are being cooked in a variety of ways. Enclosed, vent-less, hood-less fryers make it safer and faster to cook in a theatre environment. Auto Fry offers such equipment and has its roots in the restaurant industry, but is expanding to theatre operators. Another example is Perfect Fry, which has made small counter-size fryers that are in college stadiums across the country.
The product itself is obviously part of the equation. The wide range of French fries that are sold by ConAgra or Simplot, for example, vary in size, shape, consistency and, yes, cook time and hold time. All of these product characteristics must be taken into account at the theatre.
The baking process has become very attractive as fast-cook ovens take over the market, such as the patented technology ovens by Turbo Chef. The trick in the theatre is to be able to sell hot, fresh snacks to a large group of customers in a very short window, and then do it again in another 30 minutes, one hour or two hours, based on showtimes. There is no steady, consistent stream of customers during a lunch or dinner shift. It’s fast and furious, at its best. This means that the equipment must produce quality product ahead of time, that can hold and be served to the beginning of the wave of peak customers, and the staff must continue to produce to meet yield requirements during the wave.
Baked goods such as pizza and fresh pretzels have become popular new items at the concession stand and the fast-cook ovens deliver a quality product that has opened the doors to success, resulting in lower food cost through less waste, less labor, and higher yields in peak times. Some of this equipment will cook traditionally baked or fried items and blur the line between them. Some of the Turbo Chef line offers a cook process that can be applied to traditionally fried foods such as chicken strips or even hamburgers.
Whether it’s more fast-food meal items or dessert/snack items, the trend is being tried across the country at small and large theatres. They are offering fresh-cooked foods right at the concession stand, not just at an adjacent café. This is blurring the lines between a “simple” concession stand and a restaurant or café, to create a hybrid solution. This has been occurring in stadiums and arenas for several years, particularly at the collegiate level.
The final key to success is of course the marketing and branding of the food items. The branding concept is an accepted practice in the theatre industry and this is being applied to these foods as well. Whether it’s a nationally recognized brand or one that a particular chain is introducing and sponsoring, it can be equally successful if the quality of the product served is consistently high. Branding power makes the difference between a marginally successful item and a true winner. When serving fresh fried or baked goods that must compete with restaurant-quality items, this is even more important. But with the right equipment and quality product, the message is easier to get across. This positions the concession stand to be a successful destination point for hot, quick meals—a success story being proven in theatres across the country.
E-mail your comments to Anita Watts at firstname.lastname@example.org.