Dinner's served! FJI surveys theatre circuits on meals at the movies


In-cinema dining is one of the notable movie theatre trends of the past decade. Film Journal International surveyed four exhibitors who’ve embraced the concept for a snapshot of how dinner at the movies is faring and which special food items moviegoers are choosing.

Carlo Petrick, communications and marketing manager at Milwaukee, WI-based Marcus Theatres, reports, “The success of our movie/dining concept is growing. Like many exhibitors, we started out with lobby cafés to supplement our concession stands, and eventually the concept grew to include full service in-theatre dining, cocktail lounges and standalone restaurants like Zaffiro’s Pizzeria and Bar that are part of the theatre complex. Audiences have many choices at the Marcus Theatres that offer food and beverages. At some locations we offer in-theatre wait service and specially designed dining auditoriums that serve a full menu, including beer, wine and cocktails, while other locations offer freshly prepared hot foods through the concession stand. Our lounges offer a selection of appetizers and cocktails, while our Zaffiro’s Pizzeria and Bar offers a full menu of handmade cracker thin-crust pizzas, subs, pastas, salads and desserts.”

Angelique Barthel, marketing director for Illinois’ Hollywood Blvd Cinema and Hollywood Palms Cinema, states, “Both our theatres consistently outperform much bigger neighboring multiplexes and the national averages. The Hollywood Blvd Cinema in Woodridge consistently ranks among all theatres in the U.S. as having the highest occupancy percentage per seat, and Hollywood Palms Cinema in Naperville has grown 34% since this time last year.”

Also reporting great success with the concept are Jeremy Welman, chief operating officer of Birmingham, Alabama-based Cobb Theatres, and Lynne McQuaker, director of alternate programming at Dallas’ Studio Movie Grill. Both circuits currently have nine movie dining locations, with plans to expand.

Marcus has full-service dining and lounges at the Majestic Cinema in Brookfield, WI, and the Midtown Cinema in Omaha, NE, and lounges at the North Shore in Mequon, WI, and Duluth Cinema in Duluth, MN. Zaffiro’s Pizzeria and Bar restaurants are offered at the North Shore and the Parkwood Cinema in Waite Park, MN, and will soon be opening at the Ridge Cinema in New Berlin, WI.

Turning to demographics, Petrick notes that “in-theatre dining attracts a wide array of people. We try to program films that attract adults and couples, as they seem to be a good match for busy people who like to combine dining with a date night. Our lounges have been very popular as well; our guests tell us that they really enjoy the opportunity to take a beer or a nice glass of wine into the theatre.”

“Our demographics are determined by the particular movies themselves,” Barthel observes, “so we see great attendance in all age groups and the target group changes weekly. Geographically speaking, we pull customers from as far as a 30 mile radius. The trick is making the concept run smoothly.”

Barthel provides some details on how the Hollywood operation works. “Both our locations have a very extensive menu. Our state-of-the-art kitchen can easily handle 1,000 plates an hour—no buffets, only custom orders with Hollywood's signature to-your-seat service. Regardless of time of day or night, the vast majority buy a meal and drinks, so our kitchen stays busy from open to close.”

Petrick says his circuit tries to schedule films “so that they fall at the most convenient dining times, which helps increase the number of people who attend. And we have had great success pairing movies with a custom-themed menu. For instance, for Eat Pray Love we served different courses based on the countries the character visited in the movie.”

So what are some customer favorites? Says Cobb’s Welton, “Hands-down, no matter how eclectic the menu is in each market, it’s the burger.” For McQuaker, it’s “everything from coconut chicken tenders to Thai chicken salads.”

Petrick reports, “Our most popular items include freshly made pizza, salads, sandwiches and appetizers. The key is to provide great food at a reasonable price that can be eaten easily in the dark theatre environment.”

Barthel has an extensive list of customer favorites: “‘Lord of the Onion Rings,’ a big bunch of lightly battered, deep fried onion rings for a big-screen effect;  ‘Roger Rabbit Vegetable Wrap,’ grilled, marinated seasonal vegetables with cheddar cheese and homemade cucumber dressing all bundled in a tasty spinach wrap; ‘The Chevy Cheeseburger,’ a char-grilled Angus beef burger topped with bacon, cheddar and Monterey jack cheese, served with a side of our famous ‘Scarlett O'Hara Sweet Potato Fries’; ‘The Big Easy Pizza,’ grilled chicken breast, tangy BBQ sauce and caramelized onions topped with melted Monterey jack and mozzarella; and the ‘Beverly Hills Chocolate Martini,’ Svedka vodka and Godiva Chocolate liqueur shaken and served ice-cold with chocolate syrup drizzle.”

All four survey participants report no issues with the serving of alcohol. In fact, Barthel says, “it’s a very popular menu offering—especially nights we offer specials. Monday we offer half-price domestic beer buckets, Tuesday half-price margarita pitchers, and Thursday $5 martinis.”

While Cobb will only serve food prior to the movie, others keep the meals coming. “Service is available throughout the movie,” McQuaker says, “but we like to try and deliver the food before the main feature hits the screen.”

Petrick reports, “We have a complete kitchen with a head chef who oversees the preparation of the food. We make our food to order using only fresh ingredients. In our in-theatre dining locations, wait staff take orders and deliver food and drinks to people in the auditorium starting 30 minutes before the film begins and running throughout the presentation. Our Zaffiro’s Pizzeria and Bar restaurants are traditional full-service restaurants with wait staff, servers and a full kitchen staff.”

Barthel aims for a happy medium between full service and avoidance of distractions. “We start with individual, executive leather seats arranged behind tables with wide rows between for comfortable eating. Order-taking occurs prior to the movie, with silent, non-intrusive service throughout. Our servers are trained to respect the moviegoing experience.”