Culinary VIPs: Cineplex entertains guests with gourmet offerings

When our industry friends to the north and their colleagues head to St. John’s, Newfoundland, for ShowCanada 2013, many a meal and nightcap will be served in addition to technical seminars, studio screenings and pioneering women’s boot camp

When our industry friends to the north and their colleagues head to St. John’s, Newfoundland, for ShowCanada 2013, many a meal and nightcap will be served in addition to technical seminars, studio screenings and pioneering women’s boot camps. The opening night, in fact, is serving up the Newfoundland Kitchen Party and Showmanship Awards. So it is really high time that our exclusive series takes a look at how “Dinner at the Movies” is served in Canada.

Since Cineplex Entertainment opened its very first VIP Cinemas at Cineplex Odeon Varsity in Toronto, Ontario, the concept has grown to seven locations with 25 auditoriums. Cineplex VIP Cinemas are adult-only suites (18+ or 19+ years, depending on the legal drinking age in the province) that offer reserved, luxurious seat-side food service to embedded tables and a full line of alcoholic beverages. Guests also enjoy dedicated ticketing and upscale Lounges for pre- and post-movie mingling. The expanded VIP menu features traditional movie snacks and a variety of specialty items, including vegetable spring rolls, Angus cheeseburgers and chicken wraps, Mozzarella Meltdown sticks, Mac & Cheese Wedges, Oh So Sweet Potato Fries and Deep Fried Pickles.

Simply put, “it’s the best moviegoing experience,” declares Mike Langdon, Cineplex Entertainment’s director of communications. Langdon confirms the circuit’s plans to add eight new VIP Cinemas with another 30 auditoriums over the next three years. “Our focus is on creating VIP Cinema experiences in major markets across the country,” Langdon elaborates. “The best measure for the success of the concept is our guest reaction. The VIP auditoriums are always the first ones to sell out. The concept has been hugely successful. Our guests are telling us that they absolutely love the experience.”

While VIP Cinemas are already located in five of the eleven provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec), with the newest offering of Cinéma Cineplex Odeon Brossard et Cinéma VIP in Quebec, the Greater Toronto Area provides a good example for how the deployment works. Last October, Cineplex announced “the largest-ever expansion of the company’s VIP Cinema concept,” including Lounge and auditorium additions to two existing locations, as well as building “Canada’s first standalone VIP Cinema” and only movie theatre “entirely exclusive to adults,” featuring five screens on 21,000 square feet (1,950 sq. m.) at Shops at Don Mills. Cineplex Odeon Queensway Cinemas and SilverCity Yonge-Eglinton Cinemas will expand by some 13,000 square feet (1,200 sq. m.) with three and five VIPs added to the existing four- and 15-screen cinemas, respectively. While both locations will remain open during construction, Cineplex has also constructed new facilities from the ground up, with VIP auditoriums included from the start as well as repurposed existing spaces within a Cineplex.

Another interesting case is the former CinemaCity in McGillivray, Manitoba, which received a $4.5 million overhaul (US$4.38 mil.) that took its eight-screen discount operations to state-of-the-art, first-run heights, adding three VIP Cinemas and the licensed Lounge in the process. The four-month closure faciliated extensive renovations to ticketing, lobby and concession areas, as all the auditoriums were refurbished and fitted with larger screens and upgraded surround sound. At the Nov. 2 opening, Cineplex also pointed out the enhanced offerings of TCBY frozen yogurt, Pizza Pizza and Outtakes, the company’s proprietary hot food brand.

Since traditional concession items are available at all VIP Cinemas, the offerings of Outtakes, for instance, can also be enjoyed in those auditoriums. “The menus are available at the seat when our guests arrive,” Langdon explains the process. “Our cast members have mobile tablet-style devices to record orders and place them with the kitchen. They pick up the items, of course, and bring them back to the seat, but service stops before the movie starts,” he cautions. “We want to ensure that our guests remain focused on the movie. We know that’s what they come for to Cineplex: a great entertainment experience.”

Recipe for Success: A Conversation with Dane Higgins
Dane Higgins loves to cook and has “always been a huge movie fan,” the culinary manager and corporate chef of Cineplex Entertainment says. “My wife, Katelyn, and I recently started a family, so I haven’t been to as many movies as I’d like in recent months. But as my daughter gets a little older, I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to bring her to the movies.”

His favorite movie being The Usual Suspects, he appears to like taking on a challenge as well. “The challenge for theatre exhibitors, I think, is to change the perception of what movie food is all about. Popcorn, candy and soft drinks will always be popular. I love traditional movie snacks. But we’re finding that a fun, creative menu really enhances the entertainment experience for our guests.

Trained as a line cook, Higgins apprenticed at the Fairmount hotel chain, “spending time in different hotels and working in every area of the kitchen,” before becoming a restaurant consultant. Working at The Wine Bar in Toronto “really instilled a passion for amazing food” in him, and overseeing 13 restaurants in Toronto as corporate chef of The Pickle Barrel provided Higgins with additional expertise in managing multiple locations of Cineplex VIP Cinemas.

Film Journal International thanks Dane Higgins for sharing some of that insight with our readers.

FJI: Preparing meals in a timely fashion is a difficult undertaking any day. How do you deal with everybody needing to be served in essentially a much shorter window than at a traditional restaurant where people arrive at staggered times?
Dane Higgins: Preparing great food doesn’t have to be hard or time-consuming. We’ve developed a menu of great-tasting items that can be prepared and cooked easily. Also, having the right equipment is absolutely essential. We use a high-speed convection oven to ensure we’re getting hot food out to our guests quickly.

Unlike a restaurant, we know exactly when we’re going to be busy—generally about 30 minutes before a show. This helps us gear up for peak periods. Most importantly, there’s no need to sacrifice quality in the name of speed. Great food prepared quickly is just one way we provide an exceptional entertainment experience.

FJI: What else makes cooking for the movies different?

DH: Most importantly, you have to be mindful that people aren’t eating in a restaurant at a full-size table. You want things that are easy to eat in the dark and don’t leave too much of a mess. We also try to select menu items that don’t have too strong an odor.

How we serve guests at their seat makes all the difference. All VIP food is served in biodegradable boxes, making it easy for our guests to handle. We also don’t use glassware for obvious reasons. Instead, we use clear, BPA-free polycarbonates.

FJI: What did you need to adapt from the way a restaurant kitchen works?

DH: I’ve been to lots of movies in my time, so I always try to put myself in the mindset of a moviegoer. As a guest, I’m looking for great food, prepared quickly and that isn’t too difficult to eat.

FJI: How do you select the menu?
DH: Food that’s easy to eat and prepare is important, as I mentioned. But these aren’t the most important factors in how we select items for our menu. The top priority, always, is quality. We want guests to enjoy dinner and a movie with us.

Beyond that, we believe going to the movies is a social experience. We’re looking for food that enhances that experience, so we offer things like our vegetable spring rolls and mac-and-cheese wedges—the types of things people can share.

FJI: How do you test a new item?
DH: We have a test kitchen at our home office in Toronto. Actually, test kitchen is its secondary purpose. It doubles as a working restaurant, serving our home-office staff and walk-up customers from the community. It’s branded as Outtakes, just as it is in our theatres.

When we have an idea for our theatres, we test it at the home office and really listen carefully to what people think. It’s a great test environment, because you can count on very candid, honest feedback from your colleagues. If they loved their lunch, they’ll tell you. If not, you’ll definitely hear about it.

As an example, we recently launched a series of mini-mousse desserts in each of our VIP Cinemas. They’re a small indulgence that became a big hit at the home office. We think VIP moviegoers are going to love them just as much.

FJI: Speaking of loving, what are the most popular items?

DH: We’ve found most of our VIP menu options to be quite popular, but particularly Thai chili chicken bites, crispy fried pickles and calamari. Traditional movies snacks are still very popular, too—from Angus burgers to chicken fingers, and of course, M&Ms and popcorn.

FJI: How often do you change the offerings? Do they vary by theatre location?
DH: We offer a regional assortment of items in certain locations. For instance at our Cineplex Odeon Brossard VIP Cinemas in Montreal, we offer an artisanal cheese plate. At Cineplex Odeon Westmount and VIP Cinemas in London, Ontario, we offer cupcakes from a popular local supplier. In each of our VIP Cinema locations, we also offer beer from a local microbrewery.

FJI: Closing on a personal note. What is your favorite dish and beverage recommendation?

DH: My favorite dish from our VIP menu is BBQ chicken flatbread, but it’s a tough choice. I might have changed my mind by the time this goes to print. There’s a lot of great food to choose from. For a beverage, I recommend beer from a local microbrewery.