Stay Out Front by Looking Back: As in-theatre dining grows, Back of House plays a big role

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The momentum that in-theatre dining has achieved over the last decade has been truly remarkable. From coast to coast and around the world, movie theatre restaurants, bars, lounges and expanded menu food service have become ubiquitous.

This is creating new revenue streams for theatre owners, and it’s delivering new experiences to moviegoers—but it’s also elevating consumer expectations for cinema foodservice. And that presents a risk.

Customers judge your business on the experience you provide relative to the experience they expect. For instance, if you operate a dude ranch, your guests probably won’t be disappointed if you don't offer room service or place bonbons on their pillows each night. If you’re operating a five-star hotel, they’ll expect those things and more.

So how do you ensure you don’t disappoint? There are several factors to consider, but the most critical, by far, is the efficiency of your Back of House operation. To achieve maximum Back of House efficiency, here are a few things to consider:

The Starting Point: Your Menu

Burgers and fries are one thing; nachos and empanadas are something else, and pizza and salad wraps are something else again. Then there’s the beverage part of your mix: Will you serve beer and wine only, or will you offer mixed drinks as well?

Each menu decision determines what fixtures, equipment and infrastructure you’ll need. Spending the time to get this right is important; if you plan poorly, the efficiency of your kitchen will suffer—and so will the level of service you deliver to your customers. Plan right and your business will thrive.

Space Allocation: How Much Is Enough?

As a rule of thumb, your Back of House should constitute about one-third of your front-of-house food and beverage area. So if your bar and restaurant occupies 2,100 square feet, you should allocate about 700 square feet of back room to support it.

In new construction projects, this doesn’t present much of a problem. But for renovations and remodels, it can be a real hurdle. At Proctor Companies, we often suggest conversion of an auditorium to back-of-house space. While this may seem painful at the time, it’s preferable to packing so much into a small kitchen that you saddle yourself with operational inefficiencies.

Fixtures and Equipment: What Do You Need?

How many combi, conveyor, convection or microwave ovens will be needed to keep orders flowing smoothly without backing up? How many sinks, ice makers and prep tables will be sufficient? How many fryers? Will you be using washable ware or disposables? If washable, you’ll need a dishwashing station with the proper capacity. How much wet, dry and cold storage will you need?

Are you planning on installing a service bar for servers only? If so, that will require an entirely different array of equipment. We provide high-capacity water filtration and ice-making systems and easy-swap beer keg systems. To ensure precise portion sizes and proper serving temperatures, we recommend nitrogen-charged wine-dispensing units. (They also reduce spoilage.) Cold storage for bottled drinks is set under the back bar for easy access. And we make the distance between the bar and your dishwashing station as short as possible to keep your bartenders pouring drinks, not digging around trying to find clean glasses.

The Puzzle: Putting the Pieces Together

Once we’ve weighed these operational considerations, it’s time to arrange your fixtures and equipment into a space plan. The first priority here is safety. To help prevent grease fires, we never position fryers near hand sinks or grills. We widen aisles and corridors as much as possible, design lines of sight to avoid blind corners, and separate inbound and outbound traffic to prevent cross-contamination of food and keep employees from crashing into each other. We specify adequate lighting, anti-slip floors, and bi-fold doors with windows at entry and exit points.

Next, we lay out prep stations, cooking areas and expo lines. In this stage of the design, the goal is to minimize food handling. The whole system is built for speed, and this starts with the point of delivery. We encourage theatre owners to consider the addition of a loading dock, preferably at the same floor level as the back room for fast, easy unloading. Then, to shorten employee trips, we position dry, wet and cold storage between the dock and the prep area; typically, lighter stock items are stored higher and heavier items are stored lower. We install freezer drawers beneath griddles for quick access to proteins, and outfit prep tables with shelves, cubbies and utensil storage units to keep prep times low. Trash and recycling receptacles are positioned so they may be quickly emptied and replaced.

If your Back of House design calls for remote, glycol-refrigerated beer service (something we encourage to avoid disruptive keg swaps at the front bar), we position cold storage nearest the dock. That way, beer kegs, probably the heaviest pieces of inventory you’ll handle, move the shortest distance possible.

Finally, we review the overall space plan for choke points—places where constrictions may occur, and make adjustments as necessary. Once this process is complete, it’s time to provision your facility’s infrastructure.

Codes and Infrastructure: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Did you know that, like many states, California requires that any employee hand-washing station be no more than 25 feet from any service position? At Proctor Companies, we’ve been brought in to repair theatres that were recently renovated by less experienced firms whose water, electrical and waste-water systems or space design weren’t up to code, and the price tag can get pretty ugly.

That’s why we work with experienced cinema architects, interior designers and engineers to ensure compliance with NEC, UMC, ADA, state and local codes. Our in-house foodservice design experts pull the complete package together for a one-stop-shop experience.

But code compliance is just the beginning. Properly engineered infrastructure will give you the peace of mind that your HVAC systems are up to the task of heating and cooling your facility; that your power supply will never be a problem; that your plumbing systems are properly vented and include industrial garbage disposals and grease clean-outs; that your fire-suppression systems (often a very complex mix of code and OSHA requirements) are scaled to your need; that people with disabilities—both customers and employees—are accommodated, and that your energy management systems produce maximum efficiency.

In Summary: Back to the Future

Your Back of House really is the key to sizzling, front-of-house success. Every incremental increase in the efficiency, functionality and safety of your Back of House adds a little more margin to your income statement. Year over year, this will add up to tens—maybe hundreds—of thousands of dollars.

With the help of an experienced foodservice design and engineering firm, each and every element of your Back of House can operate smoothly even under the heaviest demand. So you’ll keep delivering great entertainment experiences to your customers. And they’ll keep delivering cash to you for many years to come.

Bruce Proctor is president and CEO of leading concession equipment and design firm Proctor Companies.