Getting proactive: A diverse menu serves the customer and the critic

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It did not take very long for the ban on toys in kids’ meals in San Francisco about eight months ago to spread. A New York City council board member has proposed a similar ordinance for that city, to essentially restrict the inclusion of a kids’ toy with a meal that does not meet specified health standards.

The ordinance in San Francisco takes effect on Dec. 1 of this year. The New York City ordinance is just now being proposed, but already has six more board members in agreement. This issue is a political hot button and one that can easily be debated.

In response, the foodservice business should focus on the diversification of the menu. If we serve a broad spectrum of food, with the right mix, we can help our sales and also go a long way to satisfy the critics.

Rather than wait for the continued ranting and raving of the Center for Science in the Public Interest to get us involved once again, we should continue down the path of being proactive and expand our menus to include healthy items, all on our own. I can hear the moaning from the distribution companies, and it’s a fair disgruntlement. The rotation of inventory reigns supreme with distribution management, and a wide array of slower-moving items can run counter to this goal. However, for the operation in a movie theatre, as in any retail establishment, the diversification of food and beverage options can help spur that customer who doesn’t like popcorn to maybe buy a coffee. It can also help when the food police strike at our industry and deem that same popcorn to be poison to our fat cells.

I have written many times about the simplicity of the traditional concession stand and the nice additions that have been made to it over the last ten years. But what has occurred over the past three to five years is a true re-evaluation of the concession stand and the understanding that a vast array of offerings can increase per-capita revenue. So not only can it help with the health issues, it can also help the bottom line. The key, of course, is finding the right product mix, keeping the distribution challenges in check, and helping the bottom line, not hurting it.

ShowCanada is being celebrated in this issue, and it’s fair to point out what an excellent job Cineplex Entertainment has done in this arena. Cineplex is the largest theatre operator in Canada, with 123 locations throughout the country. Cineplex has accepted the franchisee opportunity and has Tim Hortons, Yogenfruz, and Burger King outlets in many of their theatres. More elaborate preparations are operationally more expensive, but they help produce higher per-capita revenue. Adding extra offerings produces more overall purchases and entices the occasional buyer who usually walks past traditional fare.

Cineplex is not alone. Theatre chains in the U.S. have also been moving in this direction, adding frozen items, fresh-baked goods, hot pizza and excellent coffee. The dine-in theatre concept is also growing in popularity, but just the expanse of the concession counter is helping concession revenue and, yes, allowing theatres to offer healthy fare as well. Baked products, fruit products and low-calorie beverage choices will help us demonstrate a diversified offering to the consumer, and to the food police.

Kids’ trays with popcorn and snacks that are joined by a figurine may be on the radar if the trend happening in fast-food policing continues. We saw the same requirements for menu boards in quick-service restaurants applied to theatres, so it’s possible the nutritional requirements for kids’ toys will find their way into cinemas. While this is not always offered across circuits, it has become popular as an addition to a drink top or a kids’ tray because it is in fact a takeaway from the theatre to keep.

There have not been any specific studies that have connected toys in kids’ meals with obesity, or even proved a specific link between fast-food consumption and obesity. However, studies on the lack of nutrition in American dietary habits have been numerous. There have also been many discussions about the dietary regimen of a fast-food meal, high in fat, carbohydrates and sugar. The rise of obesity and diabetes over the past 20 years is alarming to the government and the general population. U.S. consumption of added sugar rose 20% from 1987 to 1997 and another 15% from 1997 to 2007.

When these numbers are compared to the cost of rising health care, government at all levels begins to make the case for regulation. The answer to preserving our joyful experience in the theatre is to offer up variety ourselves. In so doing, we can widen our product offering, throw a wider net, and increase per-capita sales. The customer experience is enhanced and the critics have less ammunition when we show our own ability to recognize the issue and present a creative, quality, diverse menu.

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