Days of Wine and Sliders: Experts discuss the challenges of dine-in cinemas

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Cinemas Features

It was probably inevitable. Over the last half-century, the most remarkable advancements in personal entertainment have come from once-unthinkable combinations: the camera and the telephone, the telephone and the wristwatch, the phonograph and the typewriter. And so why shouldn’t once-very-different concepts—the restaurant and the theatre—join forces in big-screen entertainment? Why not offer fine dining with first-run movies?

It’s a question that divides, intrigues, challenges and excites the industry. Popcorn may be an enduring favorite, but those who are offering dine-in venues are finding new potential, new profitability, and new opportunities to take the exhibition business in new directions. They’ve found a combination that’s working—for them and for their guests. Food has long been available in theatres, but it’s never been quite like this. We’ve convened a group of experts to discuss the challenges of the new dine-in operations.

Lynne McQuaker (Senior Director, PR and Outreach; Studio Movie Grill): Our founder and CEO, Brian Schultz, was working as an aide to Arlen Specter, the U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, and went to a film at the Bethesda Draft House and fell in love with the idea of dinner and a movie. He realized it was a concept that could really take off—and then he lobbied for first-run movies, which was one of the reasons that cinema eateries have become the fastest-growing segment in the exhibition industry.

Chris Pollak (Director of Sales, EPD Inc.): People want a premium out-of-home experience. If a husband and wife hire a babysitter and they want to go to a movie and dinner, now they can enjoy both at the same time. It’s more enjoyable—and it costs them less money to have the babysitter because it takes less time. It’s just a better overall experience.

Thad Kelley (Executive Chef, Studio Movie Grill): If you go to a traditional restaurant, you often sit down, eat, and then you’re in the parking lot, leaving for the movie theatre. If you go to a traditional theatre, you watch a movie and then you’re in the parking lot, heading home. We create an environment where you can come to eat and drink before, during or after the movie—and stay to relax. It’s changing people’s mindset of what “dinner and a movie” is all about.

Brian Dobson (Director of Restaurant Operations, Carmike Cinemas): We offer four different dine-in brands: “Mugs and Movies” is a single full-service auditorium primarily with “pub fare.” “Bogart’s Bar and Grill” is a full-service bar and restaurant on the second floor with balconies above a megaplex downstairs. In our Sundance model, concession stands offers traditional concessions, but also wine, mixed drinks and a smaller, upscale food menu. In 2015, we introduced the “Ovation Cinema Grill,” which has a full-service bar and restaurant in the lobby; and inside the auditoriums, guests can order anything from the menu.

McQuakerAll our new concepts offer a full-service premium bar and food menu in the theatre where you have a little button at your seat you can press for service. We also offer communal dining opportunities in a restaurant area in the lobby of the theatre—and we encourage that.

Pollak: To me, the biggest surprise about the dine-in concept is that it hasn’t grown faster. Once one is introduced in any location, everybody raves about it. But it’s a challenge to operators because it’s a whole different way of doing things.

Kelley: In the beginning, restaurants operated very differently from theatres—and I believe people weren’t sure if they wanted to eat dinner while they were seeing a movie. Over time, all that has changed—and as guests and managers began experiencing how the concept could work, they began to say, “This is the best of both experiences.”

McQuakerHaving first-run movies and 100-percent reserved seating has been very important. Keeping standards high and quality consistent is equally important. And it’s important to keep refining the concept and be willing to expand and grow with the business.

Dobson: I think the big question is: Are we a theatre that serves upgraded food—or are we a restaurant that serves movies? The big surprise comes from our guests. I think the way they view our models—and especially the Ovation Cinema Grill—is that we’re a restaurant that serves movies. And that’s critical for us—because in their minds and in their expectation level, that’s what they’re looking for.

Kelley: We look at our business as an upstart foodie restaurant. We have the mindset where we say, “Yes, I’m going to serve a thousand people today—or two-hundred people within the next thirty minutes—so how can I execute this food at a high-quality restaurant level and have my people trained to do that?”

Dobson: We do everything we can to mimic standard restaurant operating procedures, because guests expect that level of service, that quality of food, that same hospitality from the staff when they go to their favorite restaurant.

Kelley: We start with great ingredients, fresh every day, and we take the prep as far as we can without cooking it. And then we cook to order. Because it’s all ready to go, the cooking can be very efficient. You need to know your audience, cater to your guests, and train your entire staff to execute everything at a high level.

Dobson: This is not about guests saying, “Well, that food was good—for a theatre.” The bar has been raised. The menu selection and the quality of the product have really risen over the last five years.

McQuakerWe’ve got a huge and evolving menu that we keep pretty consistent throughout all our locations. The biggest challenge is making sure we’re being innovative.

Kelley: We’re consistently trying new ideas, trying things a certain way, getting guest and manager feedback—and refining our concepts further. At Studio Movie Grill, we’re not so much the “knower” as we are the “listener.” Being able to get input from many different points of view is really helpful.

Dobson: And you have to think about one environment where you’re serving your food; you’re serving it in the dark. And you’re serving it to a guest who may not be fully focused on that item at that moment; they’re watching a movie. So, we try to stay away from entrees that would require a knife and fork.

Kelley: We tend to stay away from string pasta or things like that. Even some of the bowls—Asian fusion or Southwestern bowls—there’s a visual aspect to them that gets lost in the dark.

Dobson: Finger foods are good; sliders are very popular. We’ve not only increased the variety of tacos we offer, but their quality.

Kelley: For the most part, we’ve found that, in the cinema, people like to eat with their hands. I think they’re used to eating that way because of all the popcorn they’ve eaten in theatres through the years.

Dobson: The other big challenge is, in a traditional restaurant setting, you may have 150 to 175 seats, including the bar and lounge. When you’re doing dine-in, in a large auditorium, you have the potential for 250 people to hit their call button at the same time—and in a nine-plex, there are also eight other auditoriums.

PollakThe challenge in a cinema is—it’s hard for servers to know who hit their button first, who is second, who is third? Our system makes that very clear; it creates a fair playing field, it minimizes disruptions, and it provides better service as well.

McQuakerWe use Plexcall as our in-cinema ordering system and Brian Schultz, our founder and CEO, believes it has enabled us to expand as a result of their great analytics.

Pollak: In the past, if someone complained about their service, managers would comp them free food or free drinks. Cinema managers tell us that with our system, “comp rates” go down tremendously because service improves dramatically. And the staff is happier because they’re more productive.

McQuakerBut a cinema eatery definitely requires a different training process. We’re training for restaurant-quality service in the lobby and theatres—and in the auditoriums, we also train our staff to be as discreet as possible and to be aware of not disrupting the movie experience.

Dobson: While we want our servers to be friendly, we focus even a little bit more on their efficiency. It’s important they get into the auditorium, get the order, get it accurate and deliver it in a timely manner—all the while being unobtrusive.

Pollak: If guests order from their seat with our Order Commander, they also have the ability right there to swipe their credit card; it handles chip cards as well. The server brings out their food—along with their receipt. Moviegoers love the feeling of being empowered.

Kelley: For those in the kitchen, the more we know about the movies we’re showing, the more we can recommend food items to pair with the film, or predict menu items we expect will be popular with the audience. Even knowing the critical moments in a movie is important—so we don’t interrupt the viewing in the auditorium at those times.

Dobson: If you are looking at the footprint of a traditional theatre versus a dine-in, the dine-in is going to have a lot more moving pieces—more staff members, higher costs. But at the end of the day, the costs are offset. The ticket revenue will be the same, but the guest spend in the full dine-in cinema will be a three or four times—or more—than their spend for traditional concessions.

PollakBut you need to be very in tune with customers’ needs, and you have to accept change well because the business model—and the entire industry—keeps changing.

Dobson: When we do a job fair, we post jobs for box office, but beyond that, everything else is servers, runners, cooks. We really go into new theatre construction as if we’re opening up a restaurant.

McQuakerWe have a team of managers in each theatre including a general manager and a kitchen manager. We’ve hired cinema managers and we’ve hired restaurant managers. So far we’ve been very lucky that the people we’ve hired have been very adaptable; they’ve been able to learn both businesses.

Dobson: We expect all managers to understand both sides of the equation—food and beverage and the cinema. All managers get trained on all aspects of the entire concept.

Kelley: Our business is very high-volume, very high-stress. Being able to manage the concept requires maturity—but not necessarily age. Even our young managers have the ability to lead by example; they have the right passion for food and the right mindset on how to be fair and how to treat people—and how to listen to people. We put a premium on listening.

Dobson: When guests walk into a traditional theatre, they want hot popcorn and cold soda; when they walk into a dine-in theatre, they have a different level of expectations concerning the quality of the food and the knowledge of the staff. The theatre is attracting more and more top-level talent from the restaurant industry; there’s lots going on.

McQuakerWe have a “Chefs for Children” program—originally it was a contest among our chefs—where they created special menu items and five percent of the profits from those items is donated to the organizations we serve through our Special Needs program. We also have free screenings for children with special needs and their siblings—and one of the dine-in runners at our Spring Valley location is a young man who was diagnosed with autism and ADHD—and he’s doing great.

Kelley: As we grow, it’s going to be more and more about: What are we doing in the community? It’s a vital part of what’s important for the future.

PollakI think that cinemas have a bright future—but people want to have a great experience. There are lots of different elements to that—the movie itself, picture quality, immersive sound, comfortable seating, unique food options, responsive service—and everything has to be right. Cinemas need to keep upping their game.

Dobson: But a question we’re asking ourselves in the industry is: What’s the right model? Is it full service? Is it upgrading our concessions? Is it something else? I think what’s going to come out is: There’s more than one answer. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next ten years.

Kelley: I think it’s going to be pretty fun.