Beyond popcorn: Movie theaters expand concession stand fare

July 13, 2011 

Bobby Mangan looks over his options Monday at the cafe inside Park Plaza Cinema on Hilton Head Island. The theater serves an assortment of food, including ice cream, burgers and tapas. It also sells beer and wine.

SARAH WELLIVER/THE ISLAND PACKET

At Park Plaza Cinema on Hilton Head Island, the feel is more lounge than movie theater with low lighting and plush chairs surrounding small tables in the lobby. Patrons can grab a beer or a glass of wine before the show or sit down to a dinner of burger and fries.

It's a cafe. And a movie theater. It's both, really -- a dine-in theater.

In a time when movie rental companies such as Netflix and Redbox are competing for the cinephile's attention, movie theaters have stepped up the movie-going experience to offer more than just popcorn and a flick.

Theaters across the country are now offering dinner-and-a-movie as an all-inclusive concept. At AMC's Dine-In Theaters, for example, moviegoers can order food from their seats and have wait staff bring it to them as if they were in a restaurant. Cinemark offers a similar concierge service to VIP ticket holders.

The so-called draft houses of the '70s and '80s pioneered the concept, serving beer, pizza and the like while showing second-run movies. But nowadays, the concept has been classed-up. The AMC menu includes crab rangoon dip, Thai coconut chicken tenders and flatbread pizzas. Patrons order from touch-screen menus in the theater and a wait staff brings it to them.

And don't leave the cinema after the movie's over. Some theaters offer a full-service bar with cocktails, draft beers and an extensive wine list.

It's a small yet burgeoning industry with only about 300 dine-in theaters across the country, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. Owners such as Lucie and Larry Mann of Park Plaza Cinema see it as the next wave. In the year the longtime island couple have owned the theater, they've expanded their offerings to include alcohol and ice cream. They're preparing a menu that includes quesadillas, chicken sliders and pizza. They're even offering vegetarian tapas and veggie burgers.

"It's simple, and it's quick, and it can be healthier," Lucie Mann said. "We want to cater to people who are looking for something more."

When developing their concept for the theater, the Manns visited Charleston's Cinebarre, which is one of five similar theaters across the country introduced by Regal Entertainment Group in 2007. The chain offers a themed menu that includes Soylent Greens (a chef's salad) and the Blue Velvet Burger (a bleu cheese hamburger).

The success of the Cinebarre gave the Manns confidence that something similar could work on Hilton Head.

"There's really nothing like it down here," Larry Mann said.

The Highway 21 Drive-In in Beaufort offers a full menu of burgers, fries, hot dogs and other simple delights. But other than that, most local theaters stick to tried-and-true favorites, such as popcorn, candy and nachos.

The main hurdle so far has been getting customers accustomed to Park Plaza's concept, the Manns said. Something as simple as ice cream proved to be a stumbling block, as customers didn't take to it at first. But after putting up signs advertising the cold, creamy treats, it started to sell.

Having an ice cream or a glass of wine during a movie might not feel normal, much less coming to the theater a half-hour early for a quick meal. But with its comfy lounge area and outdoor window to sell ice cream, Park Plaza is training its customers to rethink a night at the movies.

"You feel like you can put your feet up," Lucie Mann said. "We want you to feel like you're at home."

Aside from a new menu, Park Plaza features live music Wednesday through Friday nights and has been hosting special functions, such as an Academy Awards viewing party and midnight showings aimed at the food and beverage industry crowd.

Movie theaters have always relied on concessions to provide the majority of their profits, and the expanded menus and events provide a chance to grow sales.

Park Plaza, like many other theaters, has plans to convert its theaters to show movies in a digital format, rather than film. However, the costs associated with the conversion can range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, meaning theaters need anything to draw in customers and money.

"If you want to survive, you have to do what you can to generate revenue," Lucie Mann said.

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