'The Restaurant That Serves Movies': Marcus Theatres dishes on their new BistroPlex concept

Cinemas Features

Beginning with Studio Movie Grill in May 2007, Film Journal International and this author have profiled many exciting and unique ways to serve “Dinner at the Movies.” (So many times, in fact, that several dinneratthemovies domains are registered by the author.) With much excitement and a dash of ingenuity, exhibitors—mammoth, independent, and everyone in between—have cooked up ingenious ways to serve delicious food and tempting beverages before, after and during the picture show. Over the past 10 to 15 years—not counting early pioneers of the fresh-brew ’n’ subrun-view variety and other early adopters—in-theatre dining has certainly matured into a mainstay on the menu of modern movie theatre amenities.

For this month’s anniversary edition of “Dinner at the Movies,” we are excited to report that Marcus Theatres has added another top-notch ingredient to this industry-redefining recipe for success. While celebrating the ingenuity of all those great chefs in the cinema kitchen that came before, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based circuit receives “Top Chef” honors at Film Journal International this month, for delivering the icing on the (birthday) cake: BistroPlex, “The Restaurant that Serves Movies.”

Although this is a decidedly appropriate motto for an all-new eight-plex designed and built from the ground up to serve food first, do not think that films come in second there. “For those that like a little drama, comedy or suspense with their meal, BistroPlex is sure to deliver,” Rolando Rodriguez, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Marcus Theatres, noted at the June 30 launch in Greendale, Wisconsin. “At this new venue, guests will go for the food and stay for the movie.”

To maximize that very same stay across all accounts, each auditorium at the Greendale BistroPlex features electric “DreamLounger” recliners with an equally custom-tailored side table. Two of the auditoriums are home to Marcus Theatres’ “SuperScreen DLX” experience that includes a heated version of the dreamy lounger, oversized premium-large-format screens and Dolby Atmos, for good measure.

Speaking to Film Journal International, Rodriguez notes that the tagline of a restaurant serving movies was chosen to highlight the food component at BistroPlex. This includes visiting the separate bar and lounge area even without watching a film (all-day breakfast items are among its many offerings). “By the same token, BistroPlex is also a great theatre that serves great food,” he promises. “It is a combination of the best of two worlds. We needed to introduce both of those elements to achieve what we believe to be a cool entertainment destination. One that encompasses enjoying a great movie with the latest amenities available in any theatre out there.” And one that has “the ability to truly execute food and beverage at a higher level than it has been ever done.”

That noted, Rodriguez and the team have certainly done in-theatre dining before. After all, the larger Marcus Corporation also owns and/or manages 17 hotels, resorts and other properties in nine states. “We have been in the hospitality business and in the food and beverage business for many years, and have taken away key learnings.” Rodriguez talks about how their “understanding of processes and systems, of labor models, food quality, its execution and presentation…gives us a tremendous competitive advantage in the marketplace.” Offering a variety of opportunities—and individual brands to go along with them—in many of its locations already and for quite some time, Marcus Theatres is indeed among the pioneers in bringing better food and beverages to moviegoers.

Taking that historical view, “there is no question” for Rodriguez that building the Marcus Theatres BistroPlex in Greendale from the ground up represents a new opportunity for in-theatre dining. “The way in which we, as an industry, have been approaching this over the course of the last couple of years, essentially, was by retrofitting existing theatres and existing spaces to accommodate those expanded offerings. But, if you really want to be in the food and beverage business,” he draws from experience, the most essential element becomes “designing a kitchen that is capable of properly servicing the product you are about to introduce.”

Reminding readers that The Marcus Corporation has been “in the food and beverage business as a company for over 15 years,” Rodriguez feels that they “totally understand the entire product cycle, and what is working and what is not.” He calls existing options, such as Take Five Lounge, Zaffiro’s and Big Screen Bistro, the building blocks. “Part of what we have been working on with BistroPlex is to really fine-tune the right components on the food and beverage side, and how to best service our customers…. Our operations need to be sophisticated enough to service 800-plus seats in the BistroPlex theatres, along with another 100 or so in the lounge. Looking at it this way…we are servicing a 900-seat restaurant. Stop and think about that. Even if you are at 80% capacity—and we have been at that or even higher—that is a lot of people…” And it takes a lot of staff as well to make it work, along with smart scheduling, Rodriguez admits. “We are giving ourselves a little bit more time in between shows, but we are actually able to run pretty much a standard schedule. Many of the movies offer four or five shows a day, starting earlier and sometimes ending later. Either way, those hours are being serviced well” with many, many cooks, plenty of servers and a mad-dash lineup of food runners. “It is a totally different model of operation.”

As important—and as dashingly good—as the BistroPlex team is, they would not be able to serve guests as well as they do without a proper back-of-the-house backbone. “The way in which we designed the kitchen is critical to our speed of service and the quality of product that we are providing. Essentially, we have two lines with full setups to take care of high-volume situations, whereas in slower periods we can only have one of the lines open. We specifically designed our kitchen to be able to hit those peaks and, obviously, to also manage lows when necessary.”

After perusing the highlights of the BistroPlex menu online (without any low (carb) points), preparing cheesy mashed potatoes to be consumed in the dark does sounds like a feat indeed. “Cheese potatoes are one of those things that is special for Wisconsinites,” Rodriguez responds with a chuckle. “Folks in Wisconsin love their cheese…” Other good and favorite items on the menu are smash burgers (“one of the highest-growing food categories in the restaurant business”) and thin-crust pizza (“gaining a lot of ground out in the marketplace”).

Creamily cheesy, expertly (s)mashed or incredibly thin, it all comes straight to your seat. In a first for Marcus Theatres, that seat-side service includes the traditional staples as well. “We have no concession stand at BistroPlex at all,” Rodriguez explains. “All happens inside the auditorium, including ordering your candy and popcorn.” As seat-side service continues throughout the movie, Rodriguez insists that having enough spacing between the seats ensures that traffic from servers is not disruptive to watching the film. That space is equally defined by the availability of push-button recliners. But who—other than a Roman Emperor, perhaps—wants to eat lying down? And get that cheesy mashed potato all over his shirt and/or her blouse? Although guests may not want to recline all the way back while noshing on their nourishments, Rodriguez suggests that they still could do so. “Think of it as watching something at home with your feet up, maybe on the couch. That is a very enjoyable process.” Deeming order deliveries on just the right type of tray as “critical,” both in shape and size, he gives additional credit to the servers. “One of the many things that we train our associates to do extremely well is that once your meal is completed, they remove those plates almost immediately. That way, you can sit back, fully recline and really enjoy the rest of your movie.”

Closing the tab, we asked Roland Rodriguez about personal favorites and possible plans going forward. Given all the excitement and positive feedback since launching BistroPlex, he describes his “favorite moment watching customers come in: not only seeing their amazement at how great the venue looks, but also observing their astonishment that there is no concession stand anywhere. While we obviously spent some time educating them that all orders will be taken inside the auditorium, that fact that we are bringing popcorn, candy and fountain drinks to their seats as well is really changing the way of theatregoing…into a total entertainment package. Food and beverage is just one of those other components that embellishes watching a great movie on a large screen from a comfortable ‘DreamLounger’ seat, and with just great service all around. When you couple all those things together, it speaks well of the future for our industry.”

Seeing a bright future for BistroPlex, Rodriguez is upbeat about future growth. “South Ridge Mall is one of three major malls in the Milwaukee metropolitan area,” he elaborates. “I would describe the demographics as America. By that I mean a very diverse and inclusive consumer base. I consider the mix of Caucasian, African-American and Hispanic to be the perfect moviegoing audience. As all of them are certainly enjoying this new concept, their reactions are giving us great insight… What we are working through will help us to serve even better those BistroPlex sites that we will be introducing in the future. We are all very excited about how the brand is doing.”