Crafting a Cinema: Flix finds fitting formula with brews and views

Cinemas Features

“There are two types of answers, depending on who you ask” at the Round Rock, Texas-based headquarters of “America’s Cinema Brewery,” says Paul Hardej, vice president of design & development at Flix Brewhouse. “Some of the founders will respond, ‘We are a dine-in cinema that happens to have a microbrewery.’ Others are going to say, ‘Well, actually, we are a brewery that happens to show movies and serve food.’ I think that both answers are accurate. Because of the brewery component, our model is so different in customer experience and building design from other cinemas, even including some of our competitors like Alamo Drafthouse or other dining models. Flix Brewhouse has a different agenda and an altogether different feel. Obviously, we show movies, and that is our core business. But the entire experience is built around great food and fantastic beer.”

The first Flix Brewhouse, a vacated retail space converted into a six-screen theatre, opened on July 14, 2011 in Round Rock. Film Journal International had first introduced readers to the concept in our October 2010 edition, which named Flix Brewhouse as one of several “Cool Designs” ready to be realized. After the April 20 tapping of Little Elm/Frisco, Texas, Flix Brewhouse now operates eight locations in five states, with several more on the drawing board (for additional plans, see our Dine-In Overview.)

While Flix Brewhouse has expanded, so have other dining (and drinking) options at the movies, including those by major chains and initiatives such as Studio Movie Grill, Movie Tavern, AMC Fork & Screen and the previously mentioned Alamo, alongside many independent and equally innovative operations. “Yes, there is a lot of competition in the dine-in cinema segment,” Hardej contends, “but its percentage of the overall market share is still small. When you think in those terms, you realize that there is a tremendous amount of opportunity for expansion and growth.”

Hardej argues that working from the ground up gives Flix Brewhouse an additional advantage. He points out how traditional cinema design has not changed much from the 1910s to the 1980s to today, with the exception of vast improvements to sight and sound “and maybe some interior finishes.” Those elements aside, the industry still offers a very basic theatrical model. “As an architect, I am always focused on building programming, because every building has a purpose. In the standard multiplex case, the purpose is to show movies and to sell popcorn, while our buildings are purposely designed and built for dine-in operations with a brewery.” Converting regular cinemas to dine-in—“and that is absolutely the direction in which the industry is going worldwide”—is difficult, he admits. “From my construction and design experience, I can tell you it is a big challenge to convert 16-, 18- and 20-auditorium buildings made from steel and concrete into a distinct experience. It is a very expensive process.”

Hardej compares theatre design to the automotive industry: “It is super complicated, probably one of the most, if not the most complicated industry. If you are comparing a pickup truck to a sports convertible, they both partially do not have a roof. They have a windshield, four wheels and an engine, but they offer a completely different experience. That is how I define what we are trying to do.”

Building a relationship with the customer is the core. “When you create this type of brand connection and image through architecture and interior design, it must be focused on the entire experience, obviously, in the functional aspects, and from the aesthetical point of view. At Flix Brewhouse, we are creating a different category of experience.” From the start, Hardej says, the founders took that very mission seriously. “They realized that brewing beer is a very different program… and asked, ‘Since we are designing a new experience, why don’t we do it right and be different?’ And that is exactly what Flix Brewhouse has been doing ever since.”

Now Hardej has been tasked with being different again. “We are launching a new model, a completely updated building design” to go on tap during the latter part of this year, in collaboration with the architects at Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Paradigm Design. “That takes the evolution of our concept further, because it is truly built around functionality. Form follows function in this case,” he explains. “Any Flix Brewhouse is a very complicated building with many conflicting experiences. If we would have had this conversation 20 years ago, many of us would say, ‘That’s crazy! What do you mean? You’re going to eat in the theatre watching the movie? How about the noise from other people and waiters coming in and disrupting? Is that what we are going for to the movie theatre? Won’t you rather be in a quiet room with a big screen?’” Hardej answers the last question with an emphatic no. “I want to eat and watch a movie just like I do at home, sitting on my couch. I want to open a bottle of beer and enjoy that, too, while I watch the movie.

 “It is a big challenge for an architect to design a building that works well with three distinctive functions,” he continues. “On one hand you have a movie theatre with that personal, dark room, a big screen, lots of sound and visual effects. On the other hand, we deliver warm, fresh food. And you expect service with food. On top of that, we have a microbrewery, which, in fact, represents a manufacturing process. We have another facility inside the building that produces large volumes of beer. So we need to comply with all sorts of food safety and operational regulations, worker safety and so forth.”

How is this all accomplished? What’s the secret recipe for the perfect brew? “There is nothing secret about it,” Hardej graciously responds. “Once it is built, everybody can see it and how lessons learned from operating existing locations have been incorporated. We are opening two additional locations this year that are based on the previous model. I can tell you one thing for sure. We made hundreds and hundreds of mistakes in the previous buildings. That is part of evolution, part of the process, and that’s okay, as the next one is going to be better yet.”

For the updated Flix Brewhouse layout and design, launching by year’s end, the critical focus is on increasing operational efficiency and further enhancing customer experience. “I am not even going to talk about construction efficiency, because that is obvious. Everybody who designs a new building, or a newer building model, wants the next one to be better when it comes to construction cost and schedule of completion.”

Instead, Hardej elaborates upon the second core component. “We have a commercial kitchen that needs to be able to prepare eight meals an hour on a very slow Monday morning, going all the way up to 800 meals an hour during the opening Saturday of the latest Star Wars chapter. We have to be somewhere in-between an 800 square foot [74 sq. m] mom-and-pop storefront serving tacos and a kitchen for a 1,200-seat restaurant. That is very challenging,” he admits. “In evolving and improving our kitchen design, we are blessed to have a fantastic team with an executive chef with years of experience in rolling out major food concepts around the country, as well as fantastic consultants and F&B contractors working with us.”

While the kitchen is “a big focus,” it’s not the only concern. “After adding a brewery and movie theatre, we have to wrap up the entire package with energy and production efficiencies, and building code compliance.” On that front, Hardej notes that when permits for a building like Flix Brewhouse are filed, municipalities often wonder whether this is a movie theatre, a microbrewery or a restaurant. “All of it combined, correct? Building codes typically are not written to define all kinds of uses in one space. The world is evolving, however, and so is the entertainment and retail experience. As shopping centers are moving away from big-box stores and changing into lifestyle centers, regulation does not always catch up with the market. So that represents a challenge, too.”

“On the business side, our challenge is trying to scale across the country very, very fast,” Hardej observes. “With that, we needed to develop a model that is going to fit as many properties as possible. It is difficult to find perfectly sized and shaped plots of land and/or big-box retail that could be converted to our use.” After a lengthy study that included making sure “that all our functions work” with most of the properties available, “the new model is designed where it allows us to quickly adapt to any number of different site configurations.”

Though adaptability is key, what Hardej calls the  “mechanical core” of a Flix Brewhouse location must be maintained. “The entire building is designed around the mechanical functions for our kitchen and brewery. Whereas those do not change, we can adapt auditorium layouts and circulation around that same core. It is kind of like in a high-rise building. Just like a tree. You have an essential trunk and core with all the fluids going up and down inside…with branches, leaves and fruits growing around it.”

When it comes to those fruits, the labor has been done. Hardej feels that “theatre auditoriums have been figured out for decades…and copied all over the world and in tens of thousands of cinemas.” For the best dining experience, Flix Brewhouse offers tables in front of rows of seats on stadium tiers. Looming on the horizon is the recliner, the popularity of which continues to rise in the exhibition space. What does Hardej think about having a meal while lying down? He answers with another question: “Do you remember a fantastic dining experience on airplanes anytime during the recent past? Probably not. So, why would someone want the same type of experience inside the movie theatre? Eating from a recliner does not make any sense whatsoever.”

“We have spent a good part of the last 12 months–and I am not exaggerating–sitting down, testing, eating on, designing and redesigning a variety of configurations of seats.” Not just configurations, but types: recliners, non-recliners and rockers, plus all different types and shapes of tables boasting different ergonomics, angles and call-button configurations. “At the end, we arrived at the conclusion that eating on a recliner is not what our bodies are designed for. However, at the same time, probably you and I would agree that after a meal, it is nice to lay back a little bit to relax and stretch your legs. Based on that extra level of comfort, we are developing our own proprietary seating configuration.”

Working with various seating companies, architects, interior designers and millwork engineers was all part of “considering ourselves to be innovators in this industry in many areas,” Hardej continues. The result is what he calls semi-reclining. “We designed an updated version of a table with a rocking chair that will allow our guests to do both. First, they enjoy their meal in an upright position, which is the most comfortable, of course, and healthy for both the guest and our servers. It is safe, as you do not spill anything hot on your pants. It is easy to clean and to maintain. And when you are done eating, you can quickly go into a semi-reclined position, relax and enjoy the movie. That is exactly what we are creating now with this new prototype seat.”

The level of thoughtfulness that went into seating configurations applies to Flix Brewhouse’s overall ambiance, as well. “As much as I love to say that we are big innovators in the movie theatre industry,” the chain is “still very passionate about what the original movie theatres used to be,” Hardej argues. “The exciting, unique, fashionable, Hollywood-ish type of place that you go to with all the lightbulbs on, shiny countertops, beautiful tiles in bathrooms and ornate ceilings and cushions on the seats. I am talking about the early 1900s palaces that you would find in Chicago, New York City or Philadelphia. We miss that, and we want to reflect that image at the same time as we are telling people that we are modern, a brewery that serves food and plays movies.

That combination of functionality and fun, Hardej assures, is visible even from outside the theatre. “We present an airy, open building with a lot of windows that offers a fantastic outdoor experience as well. Our model is not only about selling movie tickets and food. We also want to entertain people for lunch, for an early afternoon snack or with the occasional beer. We have been extending our food service to the outside of the building. Obviously, climate plays a big part in that. In warmer regions, our patios are larger and more lavish, with built-in fireplaces, fans and foggers where needed. We really want people to enjoy their Flix Brewhouse for our films, food and beer, but also to enjoy it architecturally and visually. We want them to enjoy spending their time [with us], as we are making the building the focal point of some of the retail centers we are going to be attached to.”

In closing, Paul Hardej would like to share one more key message: “Don’t be shy and don’t be afraid of innovation. Restaurants are getting better, and chefs are getting better. Customers are demanding fresher or healthier and more exciting food choices, and that is great. But when you look at the movie theatre industry, there has been very little innovation for decades. With Flix Brewhouse, we are bringing some experiences from other fields into this industry. We are innovative in our offerings and designs, making the venue more like a destination rather than just a quick in-and-out visit, like going to the car wash. Well, you can even make a car wash a wonderful experience, if you want to. One thing that I would encourage everybody is to innovate. Let’s all have fun in it.”