“Let’s All Go to the Lobby…” Traditional concessions endure, with some new variations

Cinemas Features

For more than 50 years, a parade of anthropomorphic snacks has been marching across a stage, suggesting to the audience “Let’s all go to the lobby…to get ourselves a treat.” This long-surviving trailer was produced by Filmack Studios in Chicago and animated to a tune similar to “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” In the original version, a package of gum led the way.

Today, even as “dine-in” becomes more prevalent, that snipe still shows up—often in black-and-white with vintage “film scratches”—highlighting the enduring attraction and profitability of traditional concessions. In a virtual roundtable, some members of the industry talk about what’s going on now with “those treats in the lobby.”

Larry Etter (Senior VP, Malco Theatres, Inc.): I think more people are buying concessions today; you typically get more people in line. It’s interesting; studies show that if there’s no line at the concession stand, few people are attracted. If the line is more than five or six, people go straight to the auditorium. So you want some people in front of the concession stand, but you don’t want it overcrowded.

Bruce Proctor (CEO and President, Proctor Companies): So what we’re seeing today is a lot more self-service. It speeds up the transaction at the concession stand. For the basic theatre menu, we’ve been targeting a one-minute transaction time. From the second the patron gives the order to the time they receive their change or credit receipt, one minute is a real good time.

Etter: For a 44-ounce cup with ice, just the “fill” out of the fountain takes 18 seconds. If you want to take 18 seconds out of the loop, just hand the guest a cup…

Gary Butske (VP, Food and Beverage, Emagine Family Entertainment)Within the last eighteen months, we’ve converted all of our theatres to the Coke Freestyle option, which is self-serve. With those machines, our customers can individualize their own flavor profiles. They see it as an enhanced beverage product.

Proctor: Younger crowds, especially, love it because they can get exactly the flavor they want—and they exchange recipes.

ButskeBefore, a customer might buy one drink and share it with their significant other; now each customer buys their own because they like having their own flavor profile, so we’re seeing increased beverage sales.

EtterBut the issue is those machines deliver 120-plus different flavors and the customer has to make a decision—which slows down the whole process. It works marvelously on Tuesday afternoon matinees; on Friday nights, it’s a different story.

Proctor: You have to devote enough space and invest enough money to handle the volume. We recently finished a new Santikos theatre where they have two self-serve drink rooms; each room has six Freestyle machines and two Icee machines.

Ken Gillich (Senior Director of Food and Beverage, Reading International): We’re also moving our frozen carbonated beverage products over to self-serve. We’re trying to offer as much self-serve as possible. As operating costs rise, self-serve is inevitable.

Butske: For us, crew-serve and self-serve is a blend. We’re not changing the size of our labor force, but we’ve been able to move some of the point-of-sale labor into different areas and provide a better customer experience as a result.

Russell Vannorsdel (Director of Operations, Fridley Theatres): We’ve always placed an emphasis on guests having the opportunity to meet our associates and have that one-on-one experience. We continue to offer fountain sales, but we’ve also added bottle/can offerings in coolers that are out in front—and with a different array of drinks. Guests can grab what they’d like and we’ll ring it up for them.

ButskeWe take self-serve a step further: We have impulse racks in between the concession areas where customers can physically select an item and add that to their transaction.

ProctorWe sell “Grab and Go” candy displays like hotcakes. We place them perpendicular to the front bar in the concession area. As people are waiting for their turn, they can reach over and grab items on an impulse—and they’re very profitable.

Adam Gottlieb (Executive VP, Sales and Procurement, CCSI Candy): When my customers move candy out in front of the counter, they see a nice increase in sales. The concern is always: What is the theft going to be? From what we’ve seen—even in some low-income areas—it’s negligible. 

Vannorsdel: For many years, we’ve looked at concessions as a “soda, candy and popcorn stand.” Now, it’s necessary to offer other products our guests want. More and more we’re dealing with an “I want what I want when I want it” society and we need to cater to that.

Gottlieb: One chain in California is offering a “dollar hot dog” option. They sell thousands of hot dogs on a weekend. It’s really helping with their per-caps.

Gillich: That’s not us, but there are people who are pretty loyal to our hot dogs. We’ve had people come in and offer to buy cases from us because they can’t get our hot dogs in the grocery stores.

Etter: The top second-tier products would probably be hot dogs, nachos and pretzels. We’ve seen huge growth in the sale of soft pretzels; that’s the largest-growing snack item in the concession department.

Gottlieb: You take a company like MJR; I don’t know how they fit as many bites as they do on a tray. They have this mountain of pretzels with cheese and they’re selling more pretzel bites per location than I’ve seen anywhere else in the country.

Vannorsdel: We’re just starting a relationship with State Fair Mini Donuts; we’re also creating combos that work—milk and donuts or donuts and coffee. 

Gillich: In the old days, you would brew a pot of coffee and it would sit on the counter for hours. Now with the invention of the K-cup, there’s no waste, so there’s no disadvantage to having coffee available.

Etter: We’ll sell 1,000 large cold drinks to every one coffee. We’ve found the same thing with healthy candies. There was a time when they came out with low-carb candies; there were 300 in a case. We bought a case and sold two candy bars. The rest of them expired.

GillichThe problem with healthy snacks is you get a vocal minority, so there is a perception of high demand, but when you bring them in, the sales don’t always translate to what you’d anticipate. 

Vannorsdel: We’ve introduced nutritional Kind bars and trail mixes—and none of these things are tearing up the world, but the case counts are small enough that we have no problem including them as an extra offering in the candy case for guests who want that healthier option.

Butske: Our “Poppin’ Olive” is probably our best volume healthy snack. It’s still popcorn—but popped in olive oil and with kosher salt, so it’s a healthier option. And with our Coke Freestyle machines, customers have lots of zero-calorie choices.

Gillich: We sell edamame, which does well in California for us. It comes in bags and we microwave those bags and put them into a tub. We’ve started working with our supplier to experiment with different flavors, different salts. We’re trying to expand that program.  

Vannorsdel: In the kids’ packs, now we offer Mott’s Apple Sauce instead of candy and it’s amazing how many kids choose those fruit packets. Still, in our candy case, the number-one seller is M&Ms followed by Peanut M&Ms.

Etter: There was a study done by researchers in Chicago and they interviewed 2,000 people; they asked them all kind of questions about healthier options—and they all wanted them. Then, they gave them a $20 gift card for the concession stand and most went and bought a jumbo popcorn, candy and a large carbonated beverage.

Gottlieb: My feeling has always been that in movie theatres, people are going to eat the same thing they ate as a kid when their parents first took them. Movie concessions bring back memories of those days; they’re part of the pleasure of going to the movies. Plus, they’re eating it in the dark, so nobody knows about it.

Vannorsdel: But very soon, we’ll be required to have calorie counts up on our menu boards. The large popcorn may be more calories than some would like and so there may be a per-capita stumble at some point in time.

Gillich: I’m willing to bet that popcorn and soda will still be number one and number two, regardless of how many calories the menu boards say they have. But everything starts with having a good product at a price the customer is willing to pay.

Gottlieb: And then it comes down to promoting what your customers want—and may or may not even know you have. Typically, any time a theatre does an effective promotion of any item, sales of everything at the concession stand go up.

Vannorsdel: We’re beginning to use front-facing displays at the point-of-sale stations where we can highlight and target specific things, right in front of the customer.

Etter: The transition to digital menu boards also has improved per-capita spending dramatically. 

Gillich: We’re finding that just using rotating food images without text—it might have the image of Combo #1 and it might say “Save $1”—is very effective.

Proctor: Americans buy with their eyes. An appetizing photo overrides the price—and the signage can be programmed from an iPhone.

Etter: The customer has to see something three times before they buy it. We do pre-sell boards in front of the box office or in the box office; we repeat the message in the lobby with standees or banners; then we have counter cards at the concession stand.

Butske: It starts with signage, but then we have our staff engage with customers, letting them know what other options we have, doing suggested sales. It’s an inclusive package.

Vannorsdel: What we try to impress on our staff is: Get guests into a “buying pattern.” So every time they come, they have it in their head that they don’t just want the soda, they also want the popcorn and the candy; every time they see the value in buying the combo.

Gillich: I think growth also comes from figuring out ways to offer your “classics” in new, fresh and expanded ways, taking what you have and improving it. Not just offering a regular hot dog, but also offering a chili cheese dog, a BLT dog, an Italian dog. Spice up your basics; make them a little bit different.

Vannorsdel: The key is to be open-minded, try things. As auditoriums continue to evolve with electric recliners and immersive sound and all that, I think we have to be equally open to evolving in the concession stand in order to continue to make profits and offer a unique entertainment experience.

Proctor: Some exhibitors are offering phone apps that let people pre-order not only their tickets and seats, but also their concessions. We’re designing “Express Station Pick-up Points” where clerks can deliver the pre-ordered food.

Butske: We try to keep our concession items simple; we’re trying to provide those items customers are used to having when they go to the concession stand—but at a higher quality than they can get elsewhere.

Etter: I think people are looking for higher-quality products with higher-quality ingredients. I think we’ll see a change to something I call “clean,” as opposed to “healthy.” But everybody knows the profitability comes from popcorn, sodas and candy.

Gillich: As some exhibitors shift over to offering more restaurant food and beverage, it would be interesting to know what the soda manufacturers are doing to make sure that the theatres bringing in beer and wine are still selling the same volume of soda. What are the popcorn suppliers doing to make sure that those theatres selling expanded food offerings are still buying popcorn? What are the hot dog providers doing to make sure people will continue to buy hot dogs?

ProctorAt the end of the day, we’re still concessionaires. And the definition of a concessionaire is a person who has the ability to sell snack foods to patrons who came to the venue for a different purpose. Nobody comes to a movie theatre primarily to buy popcorn; they come to watch the movie.

Etter: They want to laugh with other people, they want to cry with other people; they want to drink their sodas with other people, they want to eat popcorn with other people. The customer wants a moviegoing experience.

ButskeGiving people a great experience—including a great food and beverage experience that’s more than they were expecting—is what we all need to focus on.

Proctor: And make them comfortable, so they want to come back again.