By Gregory Furgala
Pop, popcorn and candy: It wasn’t long ago that foodservice at movie theatres was limited to that simple holy trinity. It was tradition, and children who grew up pouring a box of Milk Duds into their popcorn and washing down the salty-sweet combination with a Coke became adults who did the same. Snacking at the movie theatre was tradition, attested to by the lineups before the various screenings and quick dash back into the theatre to catch the previews.
Now, that holy trinity has a sizable supporting cast that includes everything from pulled pork tacos to old fashioneds — at least it does at Cineplex Odeon, which now boasts in-theatre franchises, fully licensed bars and menus that cater to customers looking for more than just a movie. “We know there’s that iconic meal-and-movie experience that’s happening naturally,” says Jason Childress, executive director of foodservice at Cineplex Entertainment. “It’s trying to create an elevated experience with the VIP experience specifically that’s trying to meet that need.”
Like everyone else, Childress stuck to popcorn, candy and pop when he went to the theatre as a child. Unlike most kids, though, Childress grew up in the foodservice business. As a child in B.C., he’d help his grandmother run a concession stand during the summer, and as a teenager, he helped her run restaurants in Yellowknife. His parents met in the ‘70s while working at KFC, where Childress later worked himself. Foodservice was his professional life growing up, and in 1998, he started working at Cineplex Entertainment, where he’s been ever since.
Childress’s timing was auspicious. At the time, Cineplex was just starting to explore other foodservice options — call it the start of the theatre-foodservice reformation — and was entering into franchise agreements with food-court staples like New York Fries, Burger King and KFC. That first foray into genuine menu expansion was successful, and it demonstrated the impact that offering more than just the classics could have on Cineplex’s bottom line. It became an avenue for Cineplex to claim its share of a meal occasion, and it has underwritten the development of Cineplex’s foodservice operation ever since. “Looking at where VIP is today versus where it was 10 years ago, it’s significant,” says Childress, referring Cineplex’s program of in-seat dining. “But it was the first dipping of the toe in that created the realization that there was a greater demand for that.”
Meeting that demand isn’t as simple as opening a restaurant, bar or service counter, though. Despite the increasing importance of foodservice at Cineplex, the main draw is still the films — it’s what gets customers in the door, and it’s what their night at the theatre revolves around, and the rhythm of the VIP lounges, bars and in-theatre QSRs are subject to masses of people they bring in at the same time. Restaurant operators are no strangers to a customer rush, but the sheer demographic diversity of the theatre rush makes it something else entirely. Like going to restaurants, theatre-going is a common experience, but unlike the innumerable local pubs and bistros people self-sort into, most of us end up at theatres like Cineplex to catch new releases.
“We have such a wide breadth of guests that are coming into our buildings that are really being driven by the content on a week-over-week basis,” Childress says. “Unlike a traditional restaurant that has, for the most part, the same sort of guest coming in every week, within our space, it varies wildly. The biggest Marvel movie that’s out on a given week is a different demographic is a very different demographic than say, the Downton Abbey movie.”
The scale of those rushes complicates things further. Concessions has long been accustomed to dealing with it, but providing a full sit-down-meal experience takes longer than passing over a bag of popcorn (even with extra butter). Technology, thankfully, has caught up with the crowds.
“Depending on the theatre, you could have a thousand, multiple thousand guests, coming in a very short window — typically people are coming in 15 to 30 minutes before the movie — and they’re looking to have that meal occasion in that window while they’re there,” Childress says. “You have these real peaks and valleys. You have to develop menu items that are easy to execute, appealing and reach a quality that we want to have.”
Perhaps more than in traditional restaurants, meeting these customers’ expectations of quality, speed and selection is critical. The dinner-and-a-movie experience that Childress has brought in-house directly competes with restaurants — many of which surround movie theatres — upsetting an unofficial relationship that has long supported both. When Cineplex made those initial forays into branded QSRs back when Childress first started, and especially when it started offering its own restaurant experience in-house, it started a turf war. And while most Canadians have some sort of relationship with Cineplex — it has 164 theatres, 1,674 screens and caters to 77 million customers every year — most of them are still on popcorn, Milk Duds and Coke.
But Childress sees that changing. Larger VIP auditoriums that have upward of 130 seats typically see around 100 people partake in the menu. By and large, people are still forming their initial impression of Cineplex’s upscale foodservice.
Even with that initial risk, Cineplex has everything to gain from its entry into conventional foodservice. Before, seeing a movie was a snacking occasion. With burgers, pizzas and tacos, it’s getting into the lunch and dinner dayparts. It’s not replacing concessions, though; it’s adding to it. Childress says the theatres to which Cineplex adds these menu options see an incremental increase in revenue. “Even myself as a guest, when I go with my wife, you go for a meal, but you’ve got to have popcorn, right?” Childress says. “You can’t go to the movies without a small bag of popcorn. And we see that play out a lot, where we’ll see someone consume even a full meal that’s consumed prior, maybe in the lounge or restaurant space, but they’re grabbing the popcorn on their way into the actual movie.”
When Childress first started working at Cineplex Entertainment, the company was just starting to take on a challenging task. Incorporating traditional foodservice into the theatre experience wasn’t just about adding a new service; it was about taking on tradition. But two decades later, that effort has borne fruit, and it will likely become normalized as children’s early experiences going to the theatre are shaped by the food around them. “We’re happy with how the menu has developed, but it’s constant evolution,” Childress says. “It’s about trying to make sure we’re appealing to guests as they age into VIP.”
All traditions start somewhere. At Cineplex, they’re starting with a meal.