The Joy Of Concessions

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I am not a fan in the current trend of trying to meld a restaurant into a theatre environment. I think it takes away from the core of what a theatre should be and overlays another business model which has maybe an 8% margin and a notorious rate of failure attached to it. I think it is a model which should be avoided and we should get back to the basics.

I have to freely admit I am a concession-aholic, the design, the layout and the psychology behind a solid concession program really grabs me. I would make the strong case that a properly executed concession program drawn from regional tastes and nostalgia is the last art of motion picture exhibition. I love reciting costing, profit multiples and cap-ex expenditures in the same manner that a die hard Yankees or Cubs fan will espouse the stats from their beloved team.

Now theatres will shout to the rafters that they have ATMOS, 4D, 5D…luxury seating yada yada yada but in probably in the most short sighted play ever in the movie business they never shout out the fact that they have 20 candy bars, popcorn made from only mushroom popcorn kernels, With mushroom popcorn, the kernel expands evenly. But with other kind of popcorn, butterfly popcorn, the starch inside comes out of wherever the kernel’s skin breaks, basically turning it inside out. It makes a big difference and a provides a totally unique popcorn experience.

Now the trend in my mind anyways,is that movie theatres are diminishing due to the tend of wanting to essentially become a dark Applebees. I am personally fearful of consuming a meal in the dark while watching a movie, (I actually love a theatre to be as dark as possible) I might walk in with a white shirt and due to my inaccuracy with a fork come out with a tie-dyed shirt at the end of the film. Maybe I am old fashioned, but there is something unnatural about sitting alone in the dark eating a meal. I prefer the restaurant meals I have to be shared with good friends or preferably my wife, and catching up on each other’s lives. We should not further isolate our existence.

When movie theatres first popped up in small towns across the country in the early 1900s , the theatres offered five-cent silent movies and a musical accompaniment but concessions were not to be found. Theatre goers purchased snacks from nearby restaurants and bars and they waltzed in with their snacks. This of course would not happen today. Exhibitors even allowed self-employed vendors to roam the cinema selling sweet and salty wares like popcorn and peanuts. Concessions at a movie theatre or at another venue are called concessions because the theatre and or stadium granted the right to sell food to a certain provider. I can tell you I was chagrined the first time a customer tried to have a pizza delivered to the drive-in I was operating.

When movie theatres gained class and refinement, decked out with their marble-lined hallways, crystal chandeliers and drop-off day care centers trying to lure non-immigrant and wealthier customers suddenly became concerned with the messy treats customers were bringing in, so they started selling “concessions”. This gave rise to the explosion of the creation of the candy bars we know and love.
These include Goobers (1925), Milk Duds (1926), Raisinets (1927), and the Bob White (1922), which later evolved into Sno Caps we know today. At the same time a bloody a red-licorice war erupted pitting Twizzlers (created in the mid-1800s) against upstart Classic Raspberry Vines, created in 1920 and later to be renamed Red Vines.

The the 1950’s moviegoers’ options expanded to Junior Mints, named for “Junior Miss,” a Broadway play turned radio show starring Shirley Temple, Dots those over sized jujubes. M&Ms landed after making an impact with many a GI. who received the “melts in your mouth, not in your hand” treat as part of their rations. Sour Patch Kids appeared in the 1970s, at first known as Mars Men to cash in on then-rampant UFO sightings . Then, in the 1980s, the makers decided to cash in on the Cabbage Patch Kids craze, and the Sour Patch Kids we know and love today were re-born. Late to the movie candy game were Reese’s Pieces, created in 1978 but a minor player until that little movie, E.T. started gobbling them up four years later, and Skittles, which were imported from Europe starting in 1979.

From the beginning the star of the concessions stand was not candy but popcorn, which had become hugely popular when the first popcorn machine was invented by Chicagoan Charles Cretors in 1885 and then distributed throughout America. His descendants still turn out on heck of a popcorn machine, challenged often by the upstart Gold Medal Poppers. Popcorn was cheap to produce, and movie-going Americans consumed gallons upon gallons of it. Today popcorn remains the no. 1 best seller, followed by sodas, pretzels, nachos, and hot dogs. Add a solid variety of candy and you will have a concession stand which will keep your audience coming back for more.

I have always loved the cafeteria style line up favored by most drive-ins and have seen it work pretty well in some hard top situations. I feel that lining up folks just makes it harder to upsell. I am also a huge fan of self serve soft drink machines….not the big red boxes that can dispense over 1200 varieties of Coke but a simple 8 head dispenser that allows a customer in line to serve themselves a drink. I also like the idea of placing the candy on the counter. Frankly I know the knee jerk reaction is that you as a theatre owner will suffer shrinkage from theft, but my experience has been if the staff is present then shrinkage is kept at a low level. What I liked about a cafeteria line-up is the ability to constantly up-sell the concessions. I know that if a child picks up a Baby Ruth, there is a 90% chance the parent will buy the candy bar. If the candy is kept under the counter then the opportunity for impulse buys are eliminated. I also always try to have at least 20 varieties of candy including products like NECCO WAFERS, Rope Licorice and dime candy that the kids love to root through the bin and buy themselves.

My rule of thumb is to make sure that no item was more than $5 on the concession menu….and even still with that I still had at least a solid 300% mark-up on all items. Taking this approach I saw concession revenue that repeatedly saw revenue which equaled 65% of my box office revenue.

Restaurants are lucky that they have a consistent food cost of 33% without the cost of labor, and the kitchen and support to prepare the food. It’s a risky a business.

In short, I am attempting to give the customer what they want, and what they want first and foremost when they go to a movie theatres is get a nostalgia fix. Big seats are great, overstuffed couch like environments where the customer can eat….but there is a problem some of the population, the base of the movie going crowd can not afford a $70 dollar trip to the movies., but my biggest fear is that one day the customer will look down and say…hey I am sitting on a couch. I can do that at home.

It’s time to go back to the core of the business, an affordable piece of escapism available to every man and woman. Movies were always a big equalizer in this country…we cannot really control Hollywood as much as we would like to, but we do have control over the concession environment we offer our customers.

Something to think about.