Disruption? You are interrupting my business model...

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Snack Corner

The latest buzzword in the business world is “disruption.” What is disruption? Why has this word earned so much attention and how is it affecting the world of concessions? The next era of cinema services is upon us. We are transitioning from low-cost snacks to higher-quality, hand-to-mouth entrees. There is a “cross-pollination” of techniques, as theatres are borrowing concepts from fast-casual, quick-serve facilities, stadiums, arenas, airports, zoos and amusement parks. This is the very definition of disruption.

Everyone should be aware of disruptions/change in the workplace and specifically in the field of cinema concessions—as it no longer can be considered concessions, but more foodservice. How can concessionaires embrace change and employ disruption? Consider six ways to embrace disruptions in cinema concessions, which now can be termed recreational food and beverage services.

There are many articles published on “disruption” in the current vernacular of business conversations. Disruption as defined by Webster is “a disturbance or problem that interrupts an event, activity or process.” Cambridge defines the word as “to prevent something, a system, process or event from continuing as usual or as expected.” To be effective as a manager in the new mode of foodservice in cinemas, here are a few suggestions and some of the key exercises used by professionals.

Keep communications open. Employees in our industry have been taught to abide by rules specific to the concession mentality: speed of service, entertainment and convenience. However, in this evolution of menus and alcohol service, the rules have changed. Allow employees to communicate the difficulties they are having with the newest service techniques and ask them for suggestions on how they might improve the methods by which the guest might be served. When employees and management allow open communication, everyone takes ownership in the process. Trust develops when employees are included in the advances.

Continue your external educational efforts. Attend seminars outside the channel of your primary business focus to get an added value perspective on the fringe strategies from other venues. Every company has its culture; however, if you intend to think “outside the box,” you must get outside your own box. It is true that not every concept or model fits your ideal means of service, yet it is possible to glean a few components from other conferences that may add some intellectual capital to your business. Convenience store associations, chefs associations, and bar and wine conferences are channels of business that represent similar traits as theatres.

Consider bringing in presenters from other companies to share their expertise and experiences that may offer at least comparisons to how you conduct your business. For whatever reasons, employees seem to believe outsiders know more than the experienced professionals inside the four walls of your company. Internally, we tend to repeat the same message over and over without realizing it. Outsiders are oftentimes considered experts by employees, when in fact they are actually repeating the stress points you adopt with a different spin.

Create an attitude of necessity. In the world of concessions and foodservice, we tend to be “firemen”; in other words, we react to the immediate problems of the moment and put out the fires. To be effective at ruling disruption, everyone must understand change is a necessity or there may not be a working environment at all when your competitor beats you to the punch. Rushing to market with a new menu item may seem immature; however, holding creative, innovative food items in testing mode only puts off the eventual change and it loses its momentum or energy.

Stay persistent, as change takes time. Every creative idea is a mode of re-creation. It is possible the changes we integrate need perfecting and polishing. Real innovation takes place over time. Just look at the iPhone: How many times has it been modified, reinvented and improved? The same can be true for the new menu items you are implementing. Moving from hot dogs to handcrafted burgers means change in training personnel and procedures, which means new processes that could take time perfecting. Modifications of hamburger buns, presentation guidelines and garnishes all need some honing to offer the best dining experience.

Flexibility will be required. The ability to fine-tune the transition is key to a successful disruption route. Each person must be relatively patient as the conversion takes place. It is possible that while the concept is unique, complications in the preparation times will not be what we once experienced in the concession stand. Moving from a pre-packaged candy menu item to sourcing perishable foods will require elasticity. In this newfangled age of fresh, non-GMO, organic ingredients, food spaces will need to be reallocated for vegetables, meats, dairy and dry goods—all while still offering staples such as popcorn, nachos and candy.

Test with pilot programs. Sometimes experimenting with items will serve as a way to determine if your models actually work. Creating a “special of the day” allows the theatre to “test” the consumer’s desire to purchase certain items. An example could be “Pizza of the Week”—something that is not on the written menu such as Barbeque Chicken Pizza. Offering tamales as a “special of the day” could decide if this item becomes a full-time offering on the bill of fare. If you have multiple locations, it is possible to test a single concept in one theatre to see if it passes muster and is adopted by the patrons. Even so, it is possible that your fantastic ideas are not wanted by your loyal customers. Pilot programs can allow for a more proficient amalgamation of the disruption in the previous ways and means.

While we have enjoyed years of success with the snacks of the concession stand, the genuine question is: Are you primed to commit to the disruption this revenue stream is moving toward? Does your enterprise have steps to embrace change and the disruptions it causes? Will you be able to be open to communication more than ever, reach out to other forms of related businesses and move quickly? Remember to be flexible and patient, stay the course, and be willing to test the latest food staples.

Larry Etter is senior vice president at Malco Theatres and director of education at the National Association of Concessionaires.