Educating the industry: Larry Etter wrote the book on concessions


“Utilizing the assets of the organization, networking with colleagues and meeting with manufacturers, all of us sharing that wealth of experience has been great, not just for our business, but for me personally as well. NAC has been extremely valuable to me. It has been my educational process for the last 35 years.”

Larry Etter, director of education at the National Association of Concessionaires, has nothing but praise for the organization that he joined in 1985. “We were employing Vince Pantuso of New Vista Inc. as a consultant for our operations at Midland Foodservices, a management firm for recreational facilities. He happened to be president of NAC at the time and I got involved based on his recommendation. I had no idea what I was getting into, how NAC was going to help.”

Flash forward to today. “I have not been to one NAC meeting where I did not learn something. I have gathered valuable information on how to save money and to make considerable amounts of money that translate into profit,” he assures. “NAC serves a purpose, but it is only as good as when you use those materials and resources available. If you go to a meeting and do not participate, just socialize, while that is good and fun, it is not quite as productive.”

As Etter moved his productivity to Malco Theatres, where he now works as senior VP of theatre services, he was also moving through the ranks at NAC. “I joined the board as a regional vice president for the Southeast, primarily assisting NAC by organizing seminars.” While this laid the ground for his unwavering dedication to education, his NAC positions have also entailed chairman of the marketing department and sponsorship committee, chairman of the finance committee, president and chairman of the board. (For more, see our February 2014 profile.)

“Once a year, the board of directors would select a list of cities and market areas to provide training to managers working in concessions,” Etter recalls, providing details of the educational mission in which he took an even more active role during his presidency. “Shelley Feldman, our director of education at that time, did a great job for NAC, but we, NAC, just did not have the necessary support for him. As he was getting up in age, I suggested we needed to get a ‘substitute teacher’ of sorts, a junior director. If for whatever reason he could not perform, we needed someone to fill in for him. Lo and behold, the board of directors asked me to fill that hole.” Shortly after that, Feldman retired and Etter moved from substitute to head of class. He has since published his first book. Aptly titled The Concessions Class, with a few condiments, it offers recipes for foodservice success—enhanced by ketchup and mayonnaise, slaw and horseradish, to name but a few. Serving a jumbo-size portion of advice, Etter is clearly relishing the process of sharing.

After all, “NAC is an education-based organization.” Etter believes that its long-established certification programs are a key asset—along with online video courses offered in partnership with the National Registry on such topics as “Introduction to Food Safety,” “Responsible Alcohol Service” and “Harassment in the Workplace." “The board believes we should bring the latest trends and best practices to people from every level in the recreational foodservice industry. We run the Certified Concession Manager program (CCM) for individuals that are seasoned in their field already, as this four-day program will really validate their careers.”

NAC also offers the Executive Concession Manager Certification (ECM) to CCM graduates and senior executives. “These are people who are bidding on projects, who are in charge of building and construction; and those who are starting businesses and continue to lead them.” To fill the need for educating front-line managers, regional seminars offer an introduction to concessions management, he notes. “We discuss budget terms and introduce marketing practices, so that people can combine management styles with finance and operations. It offers a great opportunity for participants to learn how to put all of this together as they start to develop their own management prowess.”

Under Etter’s guidance, NAC added specialization for companies as well. “We try to contour these programs to their individual corporate culture,” be it theatre circuit, theme park or sports venue. “I put together webinars for OABA, the Outdoor Amusements Business Association, for the National Association of Independent Concessionaires, Texas Parks and Recreation and, coming in September, South Carolina Parks and Recreation. We now have a vessel and conduits to deliver educational information and training for all members in our business.”

Has that training changed? “When NAC started, we had the one CCM program. As the times changed, and practices and technologies with them, we have continually adapted the content and expanded with multiple types of training programs. For example, ‘Concessions 101’ is a one-day seminar for entry-level managers, who may want to proceed further into a career in recreational foodservice and concessions. This year, I put together ‘Building the Experience,’ which is more about understanding how consumers view our business. What are their perceptions prior to coming to us, our venues? What are the messages that we are sending out? And how we can change some of those perceptions?” Etter doesn’t mince words when naming the latter to include “long lines, high prices, little value, mostly unhealthy offerings, delivered by rude and untrained employees... How do we get past that perception and turned around?” Of course, he reassures, “We are doing it. But it is also really important for managers to understand what consumers think even before they come to the concession stand. That is one of the processes that go beyond facilitating great service and managing budgets.”

While “some of the industry practices are all about the latter,” and rightly so, Etter perceives additional needs. “How are we presenting our food and beverage offerings? What can we do to transform the entire package so that it has a higher value as opposed to the standard, manufacturing-like assembly-line processes where everything just looks the same? We want to change our presentation, specifically in the theatre industry,” he insists. “We are working on approaching the consumer differently, in ways that add value to the experience.”

Etter goes on to talk about changing traditional stands to self-service stations and cafeteria-style operations. “AMC and Cinemark have certainly been the leaders. Theatre concessions are not just about popcorn, sodas and nachos any more. It is about diversifying the foodservice offers. And this is happening not only in the concessions field but also in restaurants and convenience stores. The entire dynamic of what consumers are purchasing has changed. There are all kinds of different visions of what recreational food should be. The exhibition industry is moving in that direction and certainly addressing those needs for diversification.”

In-theatre dining has become one of those options, as readers of FJI’s long-running series about “Dinner at the Movies” know. “All this is really based on how can we move discretionary income from restaurants to the theatre and combine the experiences in such a way that owners can grow revenue on the foodservice side and become more profitable because it is so darn expensive on the film side. Our exhibition industry is trying to figure out how to increase its revenue streams. We are somewhat locked in on the box office. So, where else can we raise revenues to help pay for all these new digital initiatives and the changing environments? The most impactful and dynamic part is alcohol service. It is highly profitable and fits the same line as concessions. If you are serving beer and wine, then you are also going to have to serve heartier food items to fulfill regulatory obligations.”

While there are certain conveniences and time savings to be enjoyed by moviegoers with dinner at the movies, Etter realizes, “Every person that is buying a ticket has different ambitions. Do I think every consumer that buys a movie ticket wants to have in-theatre dining? No. But there is a percentage in every community.” While he does not know how large that is, “it is certainly here to stay.”

And so are the staples of the stand, Etter insists, regardless of big soda bans and the latest fat-in-popcorn scare tactics. “The visit to the movie theatre is an entire entertainment package. People are treating themselves. They are trying to get away from all their responsibilities of work and family. They want to escape for a while. During that escape, they are going to treat themselves to a beverage and/or popcorn and/or snacks and/or candy. That’s really what it is about.” For Etter personally, that special treat includes “chocolate almonds, Dasani water and nachos. Note, I did not say popcorn,” he adds, “only because I eat it every day, and sample it at every theatre I visit. Popcorn has become an instrument of business and is no longer a snack for me.”

While water has indeed become a bestseller and “people can have other beverages without having sugar,” Etter does not foresee snacking to change anytime soon. “As people continue to buy those kinds of products, you will see healthier menu items continue to grow. At Malco we offer healthy alternatives in our theatres, but, quite frankly, they represent less than one percent of our total sales. I always tell people that we are entrepreneurs. We are going to sell whatever people want to buy. If people wanted to have spinach salads, there would be spinach salad at every concession stand. But, as we know, that is really not what they want. Although we are sometimes being held accountable, we are really giving the general public what they are asking for.”

Not surprisingly, that guest-centric philosophy extends to Larry Etter’s final words of educational wisdom: “Listen to your customers! They will tell you how to be successful. Find their needs and fill their needs. Be creative and use flexibility to satisfy the patron’s wishes. And: There is no substitution for quality…never sacrifice quality for price.”

Special NAC Moment
“There are so many... My first NAC meeting was at ShoWest and I was a newbie. I was still on the recreational foodservice side representing stadiums. But this was a great trade show to attend. It was so cool back in 1985 when the studios had suites and they brought in the stars and there was a lot of rubbing elbows with the stars. I was going to one of the dinners and a very attractive young lady got out of a limo and walked in. We rode the escalator down together and I didn’t even know who she was. The paparazzi knew it was Morgan Fairchild and they surely were taking pictures. And on the next day? A big picture in the paper of Morgan Fairchild with me was proclaiming, ‘Morgan has new boyfriend.’ Only in Hollywood,” he laughs out loud. “That was my first NAC experience."