Coconut cuisine: Paragon adds VIP meals at Miami's CocoWalk
After enjoying a season’s helping of holiday meals, Film Journal International invites our readers to another “Dinner at the Movies.” As the in-theatre dining concept continues to evolve, this month our long-running, in-depth series serves up a prime example of how one exhibitor has effectively reacted to trends in the ever-changing moviegoing marketplace.
The reason behind the introduction of “Prestige Imports Premier” VIP auditoriums at Paragon Grove at CocoWalk in Coconut Grove (Miami), Florida, was audience demand and appetite, of course. (The auditoriums were named in a sponsor partnership with a Miami-based Audi, Lamborghini and Lotus dealership group.) “We wanted to give our guests more options and another great choice of how they want to see a movie,” confirms Paragon Entertainment’s chief executive officer, Mike Whalen. “If they wish to have a glass of wine with their popcorn and/or with the other more traditional movie theatre fare, they can do so in our regular ‘Premier’ auditoriums, as we offer a wide selection of beer and wine throughout the entire venue. If they want to have a meal with their movie—and a taste of the full range of items available from The Lot—they can enjoy that too in our Premier VIP auditoriums.”
Strategically located around The Lot Bar & Lounge, which received a facelift as part of the concept expansion as well, the four Prestige Imports VIP screens offer even wider leatherette seats with tray tables and expanded legroom, along with the opportunity to enjoy food items inside the auditorium. Originally offering some 290 seats total (now 250), only two of the four screens were open before the Premier VIP offering launched on Oct. 12. Whalen confirms that Paragon took a wait-and-see attitude whether to make those two extra screens part of a larger Bar & Lounge concept (currently with room for some 100 guests between bar and seating areas). Instead, “we decided to have two more theatres, creating a venue total of about 1,550 seats, because Paragon Grove is at capacity pretty much every Saturday.”
That also explains why the “Screening Room,” which originally offered a casual lineup of couches for party rentals, special events and broadcasts exclusively, has since received the VIP tray-table treatment too, adding some 40 seats to accommodate film screenings when appropriate. “We bought our own equipment and this screen is not part of any VPF agreement. So it truly remains a multi-purpose space,” Whalen explains.
As reported in our March 2011 profile of Deerfield Beach, Florida-based Paragon Theaters, the first set of changes that Whalen and his team instituted at the 1990s sloped-floor 8-to-16-plex at CocoWalk were about stadium retrofit, adding reserved seating for plush leatherette chairs and offering Sony 4K projection throughout. Six months later, Paragon Grove then added the bar and lounge area in the space formerly occupied by one of the 16 original auditoriums. With a wing of 11 Premier auditoriums off to the left and The Lot and four Prestige Premier VIP screens to the right, this plex surely knows how to flex its space and offerings in the process. In a further company update (www.paragontheaters.com), Paragon has taken over two more theatres each in Minnesota (Chateau 14, Rochester; Odyssey 15, Burnsville) and Florida (Deerfield Beach 8; Oceanwalk 10, Daytona). While Muvico Village 12 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, was rebranded Paragon, Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas has come on board as partner at Paragon Grove.
In a twist on the in-theatre food formula, Paragon does not offer seat-side service inside the Prestige VIP auditorium, but does alert its guests via pager when their meal is ready to take away on easy-to-handle basket trays. “Food is important, yes,” Whalen declares. “But we show films, first and foremost. That’s the most important part of our business. People come to our establishments to see movies. We want to offer them great amenities and good food choices, but the food is merely one of the amenities that we offer along with reserved seating, comfortable seats, great picture and sound…”
While other dine-in options try to have all the orders served before the movie starts, Whalen feels, even under the best of circumstances, “that rarely happens all the time.” He further mentions the noise of silverware and plates when more elaborate food items are on offer during the show (“If you want fine dining, go to a fine dining restaurant”), as well as possible disturbances by wait staff coming in and going out of the auditorium.
At Paragon, “we believe in movies,” he reiterates. “People like to eat and watch a movie and there are efficiencies in that. But we never, ever want to let the food get ahead of the movie. We want our patrons to decide how they want to have their food and when, be it before or after the movie at The Lot, or during the film in the Premier VIP theatres.” That way, he feels, food and beverages will continue to be the “perfect movie companion.”
On the operations side, Whalen relays the experience from his time at Muvico Theaters. “If the food takes a little bit longer at a restaurant, I am somewhat forgiving because I have time. Here, by contrast, everything has to be precisely timed. The movie starts at 8:10 and you have to get the meal done. So we created a fairly simple but very good and delicious menu of flatbread pizzas, quesadillas, hummus, signature burgers and brats that can all be turned out quickly to the customer. During slow times, that allows us to use the same back-of-the-house kitchen for both the hot foods we have at the concession stand and to serve our full menu at The Lot. During peak times on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, we have an extra cook and staff, of course, because of the volumes that we turn around. We are very efficient in terms of staffing and utilizing our facility and technology.” (For additional information, refer to "Marketing Tip: Daily Specials" below.)
All this efficient service and the amenities package are designed “to make people come to Paragon and visit us more often.” And it comes at an affordable price point, Whalen further assures. “We really set out to offer better and nicer services to our guests for watching movies and not to charge a lot more money for those services.” In fact, “the one area where the industry has gotten a little bit into trouble is pricing,” he believes. [And so does this author.] “Exhibitors are offering these great services to our guests,” he observes, mentioning large-format experiences, moving seats and 3D images, “but we are also charging them more to enjoy those very same services.” By contrast, “Paragon has taken a step back” and a different approach. He names Paragon Deerfield Beach 8 as a case in point. “We do not up-charge tickets for our 50-foot ‘Pepsi Max Extreme Theater’ there. Our concept of ‘affordable luxury’ is all about getting more people back to the movies to go more often—rather than trying to increase revenue by increasing prices. Our business model is to offer more amenities for basically the same ticket price [as other theatres].”
And the policy is paying off. “Our theatres have all done well,” Whalen reports, backing up that statement with actual numbers. “When we took over the Grove, it made about $4 million in sales, and over the course of two years we are now approaching $7.5 million.” Similarily in Deerfield Beach, ticket revenue went from $2 to $3.6 million in 2012, as of November. Year over year, 52 weeks at the Odyssey, where Paragon recently added a Premier component, are up 27% versus 4% in box office for the market overall. Paragon Chateau added 30% while the Rochester market clocked in at a mere 6%.”
As the most recent addition, Daytona Beach, “is a work in progress,” Whalen notes, “Honestly, given the sheer number of people, I don’t think we could pull off our concept in a 4,000-seat megaplex setting. We prefer to create our Premier experience in a much more manageable size. We strive for that personal touch in a smaller, neighborhood-type theatre.”
Marketing Tip: Daily Specials
“On any day of the week, you can get a burger and a beer for under $15 to enjoy with your film,” notes Andrew Holmes, Paragon Entertainment’s director of food and beverage. “We don’t think a trip to the movies should cost hundreds of dollars.” To further spice up the recipe for an affordable “Dinner at the Movies,” from Sunday to Wednesday Paragon Grove offers “two for $40,” with Premier auditorium tickets and signature dishes (burgers, sandwiches, flatbreads and wraps) for two guests.
Holmes also expects the other weekly specials at The Lot to be “a big hit,” he said in time for the Oct. 10 media tour and tastings. “We have a special every day,” such as $3 domestic beers on Sundays, $3 brats and $1 Miller Lite on Mondays and “Endless Pizza” on Wednesdays for $10, with “2 4 1” wines for the ladies and domestic beers for the gents (from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m.). And how about “Miller Midnights” for a boost to new-release previews on Thursdays? From 10:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., Miller Lites are only 25 cents with purchase of a “Midnight Movie” ticket. “We want to provide a unique, convenient, entertainment-filled night on the town,” Holmes assures.