Prize Package: PCI’s John and Tony Irace earn NAC Bert Nathan honor

Cinemas Features

John Irace and his younger brother Tony, the guiding forces of Packaging Concepts, Inc. (PCI), are pillars of the movie theatre concession industry. These successful popcorn bag makers, who are rarely seen apart, have a heritage in the cinema channel. The Irace brothers will be honored with the National Association of Concessionaires’ Bert Nathan Memorial Award at CinemaCon on April 12. Since they will accept the award in unison, it seems only natural that we profile them as one.

John and Tony come from a family business started by their father, Joseph, in 1972. Joseph Irace began a distribution company in Chicago and relocated the company to St. Louis, MO, in 1982 to be more centrally located. Packaging Concepts has always been a family firm. John began his tenure in 1975 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, driving the delivery truck and working in the warehouse. Tony was introduced to the company full time in 1985 after graduating from United States International University. “My first day, I was told to unload a container full of microwave bags by hand. There were 1,275 cases and it was hot!” Tony reminisces.

Both John and Tony reflect on the values and principles their father instilled in them in the early years. “My dad used to always say, ‘If it is wrong, make it right!’” John recalls. They both testify that their working relationship was cemented by Abe Mendenhall, “the mentor” who taught them the ways of sales and business. “Abe was the man who influenced us the most in the business,” Tony declares.

In 1983, Joe purchased his first printing press and Packaging Concepts was now in the manufacturing business, producing microwave popcorn bags. The major turn in the PCI legacy came in 1993 when Sweetheart Cup turned to John and Tony, asking if they could produce popcorn bags. Sweetheart had a major cinema chain interested in popcorn bags and “Sweetheart felt its strengths were in round things,” as John reports, so they asked if PCI would purchase the bag machine and produce the popcorn bags. As history shows, PCI and Sweetheart came to an agreement and the Iraces had a new business in the cinema channel. PCI created food-style bags for Walmart and bagel bags for delis, and John saw a clear opportunity in the cinema business.

“The single most valuable thing we brought to movie theatres was the leak-proof bag,” John observes. “Since we were making bags for things like fried chicken, we had the capabilities to make a popcorn bag that would restrict the butter from leaking through onto clothes.”

The first ShoWest John attended was in 1993; Tony was not permitted to attend, as John thought his sister Barb would be better suited “to work in the tent.” John and Barb presented their version of the popcorn bag with a slight twist, offering specialty bags with Lion King artwork. This was an innovation that has now become a staple: Movie-themed popcorn bags are now fundamental in the exhibition industry. Based on this success, John pulled Tony away from the microwave sales division and made sure he was totally committed to the growth of this package. John and Tony have subsequently teamed in the presentation of packaged goods for cinemas. Unique styles of food trays, paper containers, and the introduction of an eco-friendly bag are among the innovations that continue to set these two gentlemen apart from their peers.

John serves as the chairman and CEO, while Tony has risen to president and chief operating officer of the company. John and Tony are two of eight siblings, all of whom have spent time in the family business, Barb still manages the office and keeps both John and Tony organized.

Some of the Iraces’ closest friends see them as twins, John is the taller one and Tony is the more toned. But it is hard to tell them apart, as they each consume a glass of red wine together, volunteer at charity events or spend time with their families. John has been married to his wife Sandy for 42 years and has four children: Adam and Daniel, both part of the PCI workplace, and daughters Paula and Angela. Tony, on the other hand, is single. Each shares a genuine interest in local community charities. John serves on the board of directors of the St. Louis Zoo as well as Our Little Haven, a foundation for the prevention of child abuse. Tony serves on the board of directors of Ronald McDonald House in St Louis.

The Iraces take tremendous pride in their commitment to the exhibition industry, supporting nearly every regional conference with trade booths and sponsorships. They regularly support the NAC educational foundation and contribute to the Al Lapidus Foundation, as well as purchasing hundreds of raffle tickets from Libby Mauro. They personally attend every conference possible along with colleagues Bo Bartoni and Martin Olesen.

PCI produces over two billion microwave bags each year, and sells nearly 100 million popcorn bags to cinemas across the world. It seems a bit odd that a company with 95% of its manufacturing supply in a different channel of business would spend so much time with cinema leaders, but John declares, “We love the movie industry. We have so much fun in this industry, it’s incredible.”