Keeping Concessions Popping: Marcus’ Rob Novak caters to customer preferences

Cinemas Features

Marcus Theatres’ VP of concessions Rob Novak has spent his entire working life at the circuit. While still in high school in 1996, he took a part-time job manning the box office and concession stand at his local theatre. Just before heading to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he was promoted to assistant manager. He became a full-time employee after graduation and rose to general manager in Elgin, Illinois, in 2004, and general manager of Marcus’ flagship Orland Park, Illinois complex in 2008. He eventually made his way to the corporate office and the director of concessions post in 2013, rising to his current VP position this past August.

As Novak sees it, “It’s our job to offer diversity to the consumer. As time goes on, people have limited amounts of physical time to use in their selection of what they want. So people want diverse choices when they come to a location. Not everyone has time to watch Gladiator for two and a half hours and then go out to an hour-and-a half-dinner and give up four or five hours. In the fast-paced world we live in, people are looking for additional options in the movie theatre. People continue to want things that are consumable inside the theatre—it has to be functional to eat.

“But at the end of the day, the bread and the butter of our business still remains the popcorn and soda offering. We’ve never really shied away from that. We’ve added more diverse choices when it comes to beverages—non-carbonated ‘better for you’ choices, flavored drinks with zero calories. We’ve worked with Pepsi to figure out different offerings that appeal to different demographics. We have a changing demographic who may not want traditional cola, although it’s still the predominant thing we sell. But it could be bottled water, Gatorade, juice products. That has been a major expansion. Fifteen years ago, we started selling bottled water and we thought that was stepping out of our comfort zone.”

Novak emphasizes, “It’s important to offer ‘better for you’ options, but at the end of the day it’s the guest that dictates the sustainability of that product in our environment… We want the consumer to be able to make choices for their own benefit and based on their own tastes.”

While popcorn and soda still generates the lion’s share of income, Novak has seen growth in such items as nachos and pretzel bites. And a big success for the circuit is the smaller $2 all-beef hot dog is offers on discount Tuesdays.

Digital menu boards have been a boon to his operations, expanding from 40% to 80% of Marcus locations in the last two years. The benefits include more flexibility of displays, vivid imagery of the food (including animation), and more impactful marketing of special offers and tie-in cups.

Novak believes he caught the movie bug during his stint as an assistant manager in 1998. “It was the time of Titanic. That was one of the hallmark movies. The duration of the run was so long and deep, and I was working at a 20-plex at the time and it would be on three, four screens months later. That was a pretty wild time, going through that and the amount of business we did, and the sheer number of people who would come and watch Titanic time and time again. We were so busy for so long, it really made time go by fast.”

Novak is excited about the new direction forged by CEO Rolando Rodriguez:

“Rolando’s arrival was a matter of opening our eyes to different ways to do things. He came in with new ideas and different outlooks on things and challenged us to see if there’s a different way we can look at things. And he instilled in us the whole price-value relationship.”

Marcus Theatres’ VP of concessions is also proud of the tradition he is now a part of. “You see a group that has a certain set of values that have been passed on for three generations. How many major family-run companies make it to three generations? How many have that type of stability? And the generations work with each other… While the first name may change, the last name’s been the same and it’s been constant ever since. The sincerity and the genuineness and the lessons that have been passed down from generation to generation about how to run the business are important.”