New choices, more profits: Alternative menus to match alternative content


With the focus on digital cinema and sound this month, I thought it was appropriate to revisit the growing trend of alternative menus throughout the theatre. I write “throughout the theatre” with sincerity, as the ability to find snacks and drinks throughout the multiplex is abundant. Alternative snack bars, restaurants, beverage bars and vending options have morphed the movie theatre into a consumer experience that offers great variety.

Taking a look at some of the alternative offerings, let’s explore the expanded menu at the concession stand, the dessert bars, the beverage bars, and the full restaurants. Starting with the concession stand, the consistent, quality delivery of hot pizza or chicken tenders or varied pretzels to go with the traditional hot dogs and nachos seems here to stay. The addition of churros and pickles also doesn’t seem so innovative anymore, as they are very popular. Hot or cold, the variety of choice at the concession stand proper is growing, very innovative, and exciting for the consumer.

Another interesting addition to the snack bar is healthy food, often in the form of food snack packs. Both AMC and Regal have introduced these healthier items. Healthy food and lifestyle is a subject all by itself, so I won’t pursue it further again here. But what it does for concessions is add variety and choice, which serves two purposes: satisfy the customer and the critic at the same time.

McDonald’s recently announced that they will begin putting apple slices in every Happy Meal, whether you request fries with it or not. The movement towards helping America reduce its waistline is not going away anytime soon. But variety is always a positive for the consumer experience; whether they exercise the choice to go healthy or not is immaterial when it’s at least offered.

Moving away from the concession stand, you’ll find the rest of the theatre space is no longer just hallways and arcade games. The coffee bar or the dessert bar, never really that far from each other, offer a sales opportunity to the theatre to capture that adult who will never buy popcorn. You know who you are. No problem, we have a latte and a slice of apple spice cake for you. Whether the bars are branded to a national company such as Starbucks or not, the ability of the customer to move to a different space, away from the crowded concession stand, and still buy something is a win-win for everyone.

Kick it up a notch—in age, that is—and you find alcoholic beverage bars and lounges popping up in theatres around the country, and adding substantial profits to the theatre. Profit margins for alcohol are high and the adult atmosphere of a lounge/bar is attractive to a wide category of adults. I can write this because I do have three children, but when I want to go out without them, I like to not have to spend the evening with someone else’s kids. I am not alone in this thought process, and the segregated, 21-and-over lounge seating with a bar is very attractive and just may draw adult couples’ entire night’s discretionary spending, for both food and entertainment, all at the theatre.

Alternative menu options—alternative food, beverage, snack, dessert, or healthy choices—all contribute to an expanded ability of the theatre to attract the dollars walking in their door. The full restaurant or specific cuisine bar take this further and do beg for the whole evening’s spending to be done at the theatre. The attraction of a full food offering, such as a Mexican food bar, a sushi bar, a Greek restaurant or an all-American continental restaurant, is the overall revenue that can be generated from the real estate that is already being paid for to keep your doors open. Yes, the operational aspect of a full food dining area or full dining experience offered in the auditorium can be a beast to slay, but it can be done. You are already paying for the building to house the consumer for a full movie.

All of the abovementioned types of cuisine and restaurants are operational in some city across this country, in one of the theatres that has expanded its consumer experience. It comes back to the biggest challenge that the industry is currently facing, video-on-demand and deluxe home theatres. In order for the public theatre to be a destination choice for the consumer, the content has to be alternative, the menu has to be alternative, and the experience has to be a great one, casting a wide net and retaining the customer base that has been built. The good news about alternative menus is they can be just as exciting and rewarding for the theatre to design and offer as they are for the consumer to enjoy. We are, after all, in the entertainment business.

Please send comments to Anita Watts at