Cinema Eatery Prepares Cross-Country Rollout

After an entire year of tours of tantalizing theatres, like all good meals our exclusive series about “Dinner at the Movies” must come to an end. This month, Film Journal International returns to Texas, where we started our tasting menu at Studio Movie Grill (FJI June 2006). Apparently, there’s something about movies and food, or maybe it’s all about beef and alcohol, in the Lone Star State.

Why there are so many cinema eateries in Texas is “probably more a matter of coincidence,” says John Hersker, the recently appointed president of Movie Tavern Partners LP. “The concept happened to take root here and became popular,” he notes, mentioning Alamo Drafthouse (FJI December 2007) which alongside Studio Movie Grill also originated in Texas. “There are certain states that have more restrictive requirements for obtaining liquor licenses and make it harder for cinema eateries to be built there, and even within certain states, various municipalities can have different rules and regulations.” Most certainly, however, “we don’t believe there is something about Texas that is inherently different from other places and that makes the concept work only here. If executed properly, the concept can work everywhere.”

Having relocated to Dallas in 2006 from Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, where he concluded a 26-year career at Paramount Pictures as executive VP of distribution, Hersker also believes, “Texas is a state with a strong history of wildcatters and people who try new and different things.” Three of those entrepreneurs taking advantage of the “fertile ground to try out a variation on the traditional theatre business” were the original founders of Movie Tavern.

In November 2001, Jeffrey Benson and his wife Jamie, together with longtime friend, Dennis Butler, opened the first Movie Tavern at Ridgmar Mall in Fort Worth, Texas. With General Cinema pulling out of the state, opportunity knocked for them to realize a long-held idea. “A great space became available that we took a very short-term, cheap-deal lease on, because we didn’t know whether the cinema-eatery concept would be successful or not,” Jeff Benson once admitted to the author.

Looking at a dozen very busy Movie Taverns today, with 95 screens in five states, his fears proved fleeting. Likewise, the founders’ end-of-May exit from the company had nothing to do with a change of heart—or stomach, either. For Hersker, “It is not an unusual story that individuals who start a company at some point reach the day where they decide to sell out their interest.” Back in 2005, Movie Tavern had attracted the attention of Lee Roy Mitchell, he elaborates, “who not only believed in the concept but also wanted to grow and perfect it.” Obviously, Mitchell’s subsequent investment through private-equity firm Copper Beech Capital, LLC, “and all of Lee Roy’s expertise in exhibition allowed the company to grow at a more rapid rate than it could have otherwise.” In May of this year, Mitchell purchased the remaining minority interests of the Bensons and Dennis Butler.

John Hersker and his team now operate Texas-wide in Arlington, Bedford, Denton, Fort Worth, Houston and Humble. In 2007, for the first time and with the same success as in Texas, Movie Taverns were moved across state lines to Kentucky (Lexington, opened March 9), Ohio (Columbus, May 11) and Colorado (in the Denver suburb of Aurora, June 15), all while continuing to expand at the home base. After the 10-screen former UA in Hulen was converted into a stadium flagship for the southwestern area of Fort Worth (Sept. 7), the Oct. 19 opening of Willowbrook Movie Tavern 10 in a $5.5 million partial conversion of a Home Depot marked the third location in the Houston market. This year’s May 9 launch of a 27,000-square-foot facility (2,500 sq. m.) at Northlake Festival Mall in Tucker was the first for both Greater Atlanta and the state of Georgia.

The very next Movie Tavern, scheduled for this fall in Williamsburg, Virginia, will be the first from-the-ground-up and purpose-built location rather than the conversion of an existing building hitherto practiced. Moving forward, leases are signed for new builds in a lifestyle center located in the museum district of Fort Worth, as well as a 2009 Movie Tavern for Macon, Georgia.

“Our scope is national as opposed to regional,” Hersker confirms. “We believe strongly in the potential of the concept and are determined to grow Movie Tavern.” At the same time, he recognizes, “the theatre business is not an easy business in and of itself. Add the restaurant side, which is very difficult to do well too, and it becomes evident how you have to properly execute both in order to continue to be successful. While the popularity of cinema eateries is undeniable—as reflected in our growing attendance and the loyalty of our guests who tell us they had gotten out of the habit of going to the movies but enjoy coming to Movie Taverns—our growth is inextricably tied to execution… We care more about doing it right than doing it fast.”

Speaking of current growth and past development, “what we now call the cinema eatery concept has really been around for 30 years or more,” Hersker recalls, “starting out as drafthouses that were older sub-run theatres.” As a fourth-generation exhibitor whose great-grandfather opened a theatre in 1895, he certainly knows our history. “I grew up literally next door to—and worked in—the family business [in West Hazleton, Pennsylvania,] “which gave me a lifelong love for the movie business.” In one of those coincidences that the exhibition business sometimes brings, that very same 1915 theatre now operates as the Cinema & Drafthouse. “It is no longer called the Hersker Theatre, as my family sold it years ago and there is no connection to Movie Tavern, but that is a really interesting twist,” Hersher reflects.

These days, Movie Tavern and other players have “taken the original concept to a whole new level,” he continues, “with first-run films and a more extensive menu in much better facilities than the first generation of cinema eateries.” Just like those original incarnations were prompted by the closing of single screens and twins in view of the miniplexes of the time, Hersker finds what “facilitated the growth of the second generation was the availability of conventional sloped-floor multi-screen theatres that had been rendered obsolete in some areas by the construction of new stadium megaplexes. While the idea was out there for a while, [Movie Tavern has] truly capitalized on the opportunity.”

As avid readers of this series know, such opportunity is no longer a quick brew and cheap view fix either. “We have installed stadium seating in the majority of our theatres and upgraded to state-of-the art equipment,” Hersker attests. “The film presentation has to be as good as in any conventional theatre. And the restaurant side—both in terms of food and service—is as good as people would find in any other casual dining establishment. If we don’t meet people’s expectations on either side of the equation, we will not succeed. If we have first-rate food and service and only mediocre film presentation, we haven’t done our job. By the same token, if we give people a first-rate presentation and only mediocre food service, people will elect to go someplace else. That’s what makes the concept such a challenge.”

When the Lexington Movie Tavern opened, the local television station reported from the theatre, “We are here at the largest restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky,” Hersker recalls. “It was a striking observation, but immediately and self-evidently true because the theatre seats about a thousand people. How many restaurants seat that many patrons? And serve their guests in a compressed period of time? Outside of banquet facilities, where the food options are usually predetermined, virtually none. In our case, everyone orders something different from a large menu and we’re serving them in the dark, during a film that we do not want to interrupt. In that context, you really appreciate how difficult the concept is to execute.”

Consequently, local management is recruited from both sides, “though there’s a tilt towards restaurant people.” Nonetheless, Hersker knows, “We need to implement substantial training because if you’ve only worked on one side and not the other, by definition you only know half of the concept. Nobody can get by with knowing just one.” As for some of the differences, “the restaurant business has a higher degree of predictability for what your attendance will be week to week,” he explains. “There is more consistency to it, whereas everybody in exhibition knows how dependent we are on the films that we are showing. It’s not enough to know how to manage a restaurant, but you now have to anticipate what it means to open a summer blockbuster.”

A case in point, Hersker says, was Sex and the City. During its opening weekend, Movie Taverns across the country sold “more Cosmopolitans in three days than we had in the first five months of the year. Our guests were literally toasting their favorite characters up there on the screen.” To him this was “a communal experience that patrons shared with people that they didn’t even know but who, like themselves, loved that show” and represented further proof of the impact of the movies. “Here’s a television property that has been around in one form or another for ten years and fans of the show can get a fix virtually any time they want. Yet people still came out to share the experience, knowing full well it would eventually be out on DVD and show on TV everywhere for the indefinite future. I don’t think there is a better illustration of the appeal and durability of theatrical moviegoing.”

“Despite all the alternatives that people have for entertainment, including all their options in the home,” he continues, “there is still a compelling need to go out and sit in a dark room with a group of strangers and be entertained by movies. The appeal of that shared experience has been proven time and time again.” As for having “dinner at the movies,” Hersker sees “no reason why the concept won’t endure as long as we in this business provide our guests with a satisfying experience.”

Stan Durwood’s now-legendary analogy that everybody has a kitchen at home, yet people still go out to eat, may provide the ultimate statement here. “At Movie Tavern, it is more than an analogy,” John Hersker attests. “It actually refers to our experience in that people can both eat at home and be entertained there. We are finding that an increasing number of people like to eat a meal while watching a movie in our theatres. Knowing that they often have the desire to leave their homes, and that they have other choices, we have to make sure we give them a compelling reason to choose us.”

Technology Case Studies
Northlake Festival & Willowbrook Movie Taverns

Completely remodeled from the early-’80s AMC eight-plex that had room for some 1,720 patrons and was closed for about seven years, Northlake Festival in Tucker, Georgia, now offers DTS sound alongside digital projection capabilities for parties and corporate functions in every auditorium. The new capacity as a Movie Tavern comprises tables for 900 fixed theatre rockers that are upholstered in pleather by Seating Concepts; other locations also offer swivel-and-roll, executive office chairs that are placed with countertop tables.

Northlake patrons are served according to the “Original” Movie Tavern operating model. Customers place their orders in the lobby and receive a glow-in-the-dark table number, which later on helps the wait staff to deliver the food and beverage selections along dedicated food runner aisles inside the auditorium. Named after the first Ridgmar Movie Tavern, John Hersker advises that “the concept continues to be under evaluation.” The majority of Movie Taverns, such as in Willowbrook, Texas, offer the “Premier” experience with full wait-staff service for orders and delivery in each theatre.

Among the many exclusives that were developed over the years is a proprietary call button for service. The building is equipped with monitors throughout that show each auditorium and every seat. As soon as the patron presses the button at their table, the location lights up on the display screen. After two minutes the light turns yellow and red after four, automatically paging the manager.

More software and technology facilitate ticket sales (Ticketsoft) and restaurant operations (POSitouch), while the Northstar enterprise system was modified to interface with the first two programs and the call button system. With that, the company can ascertain everything from average service time to favorite dishes. Despite other delicious choices like Philly Cheese Wrap, Pickle Chips and Ocean’s Eleven cod and shrimp, nearly half of orders go to one of the top-three selling items of chicken fingers, hamburgers and pizzas.