Culinary Star: Mark Grimes brings a chef’s mastery to upscale movie theatre dining

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The cinema industry has made considerable adjustments to its food and beverage offerings in its attempt to endear patrons to the theatre experience. Marcus Theatres has gone all in with its employ of a recognized chef with national experience and a twist of European style. Mark Grimes brought his services to the Wisconsin-based firm in 2012 and has managed to take it into the next generation of Marcus gourmet deliverables. His training has been formal, through the Culinary Institute of America. He experienced his development through teams of established mentors and through owning his own hospitality facilities.

Chef Grimes has always preferred a Northern USA habitat. He was born in Detroit in the early 1960s and relocated with his family to Milwaukee when he was 12 years old. He received his early education there while his father managed a computer data service. After graduating from high school, he accepted a scholarship to attend Creighton University in Nebraska. “I was offered several opportunities throughout the Southeast but felt I was designed to attend Creighton, so I became a Blue Jay.”

Mark’s major was Engineering, yet something compelled him to change majors and he left Creighton. He did return to school and attended the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, but found his true calling was in culinary creativity as he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America of New York and graduated with an associate degree in Occupational Studies. He finished second in his class, a sign of his expertise and his dedication to culinary delivery.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute, Mark decided to exercise his skills in Europe, where he found his first internship at Claridge’s Hotel in London. “I was able to intern with a number of English, German and French chefs,” he recalls. “They became the foundation of my training and after four months I was ready to try my own skills and complete a full year.” In 1990, Grimes was named one of the Top Ten Student Chefs by Food and Wine magazine.

Through his internships, Chef Grimes became close to Chef Kevin Graham and asked to mentor with Graham; he relocated to New Orleans to demonstrate his talents at the Windsor Court Hotel. Unfortunately, his mentor relocated shortly after that change, but Mark remained at the Windsor another five years, perfecting his creative style. He was offered the chance to return to his native territory and familiar turf and accepted a position as executive chef at the American Club in Kohler, Wisconsin. There he administered the execution of all the foodservice outlets, including banquets and catering for functions handling 2,000 meals at single seatings.

The truth about Chef Grimes is that his skill set is so phenomenal that recruiters are regularly offering him new opportunities. His resume shows stints at Lettuce Us Entertain You, Maggiano’s Little Italy with Rich Melman, and the Pump Room in Chicago. He joined Champps Americana, leading over 20 new additions and directing 44 restaurant locations. These all represent the variety and extent of his experience and capabilities: formal and European, but adaptive to American dining concepts.

The executive leadership role continued when he was recruited to direct the concept of ESPN Zone: A Disney Entertainment Project. Mark engineered the opening of multiple stores in his five-year tenure, including facilities that produced anywhere from $16 million in sales to over $28 million annually in New York City. The largest of these units operated six kitchens simultaneously.

Grimes furthered his career with a great opportunity at Fox Sports Grill for five years, Restaurant America and the “Bar Louie” concepts, extending these properties to more than 60, then assisting with the opening of Pinstripes, Inc. based in Chicago. Looking at his immense experience, the theatre industry can be proud of its next group of food and beverage leaders.

Grimes believes the challenge for theatre operators going forward will be “finding the sweet spot,” that perfect mix of fast-casual and concessions. “The niche will be how we find the perfect mix of menu items: Popcorn, candy and sodas must remain a part of the experience [but we must] still offer creative food options that exceed the patron’s expectations.” The real opportunity comes in the ability “to over-deliver the food and beverage experience.” This is the one channel of business where it was once perceived that we offered a lower degree of food service, which makes the practice of exceeding the customer’s expectation much easier than traditional restaurants,” Grimes submits. He adds, “When we add convenience, people get comfortable with the experience.”

Asked about his personal signatures delivered at Marcus, he proudly says the word “authentic” and describes the lengths he will go to use the highest-quality ingredients, fresh and local products. “Nothing canned, not prepackaged,” he commits. It is important to “create food that fits the size of the kitchen.” He believes in responsible menu construction: Food can be “healthy but not forced, offered but not pressed; options should be available. Movies are about fun and treats.”

Since he is now employed by the theatre channel, we must know his favorite movie. It’s The Deer Hunter, though he has seen The Godfather a few times. His favorite movie snack is popcorn and Twizzlers and if he is lucky, a cold craft beer. The most endearing “star” he has met is Chris Berman, “Boomer” at ESPN, as they had a most interesting appreciation for each other.

Mark and his wife Sandra have two daughters, Claudia and Isabelle. When not in the kitchen, he can be found on a golf course enjoying his favorite hobby or taste-testing the latest wines while eating the local cuisine. And you guessed it: His favorite book? “Any cookbook.”

Editor’s note: Since the inception of this article, Mark Grimes has decided to expand his personal restaurant business in the Chicagoland area. Marcus Theatres intends to collaborate with him on the F&B business in the near future to continue to bring his influence and innovative approach to movie theatre dining.