Planning a restaurant menu means juggling ingredient availability, price point, what you want to cook, what your customers want to eat.
Planning a menu when your restaurant is inside a movie theater means further considerations: Will the food be too smelly, too crunchy, too messy? Oh, and can it be served in 10 minutes or less, even when several hundred people flood your lobby at one time? And can it be eaten in the dark?
Considering the movie concession stand a “restaurant” is becoming more fitting as new menus reach beyond popcorn, hot dogs and giant cups of soda.
“I think we fall somewhere between fast food and a sit-down restaurant,” Adrienne Ishizu, food and beverage manager for Consolidated Theatres, said of the expanded menus that have been introduced in the last few months at the slickest of the chain’s eight Oahu theaters.
At its newest location, Olino in Kapolei, and the newly remodeled Mililani theater, Consolidated has built in full kitchens. Where once a popcorn popper, hot dog steamer and perhaps a fryer were the only cooking appliances, these theaters have ovens and cooktops, as well as full prep areas, rice cookers and stations stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables.
THIS MEANS the menu can include burgers made in-house and cooked to order, freshly tossed salads, fruit-topped waffles, even a loco moco with a just-fried egg. Both theaters also have full bars, with local and craft beers on draft, and a long list of cocktails.
“We really try and push the envelope,” said Santos Loo, corporate chef for Reading International, which owns Hawaii’s Consolidated chain. Loo, based in Los Angeles, worked with Ishizu on the local menu as he has with chefs throughout the Reading chain.
“In the beginning we chose not to sell rice for fear it would be too difficult to eat in the dark,” he said. Now rice comes with the loco moco and a lilikoi chicken bowl.
He is confident customers can make the hand-to-mouth connection when the lights go down. After all, consider popcorn: “It gets all over the place. It’s really just big rice.”
The local menu, Loo said, is now on par with top movie food in L.A., but he has aims to add seafood dishes and mazemen — ramen with a sauce rather than broth.
“Mililani was my 17th enhanced menu makeover,” Loo said. “I see no end to it.”
Consolidated plans to upgrade kitchens as it renovates its older theaters with recliner seating. Next up is Kahala Mall, which closed over the weekend and is to reopen in the spring with a full kitchen and bar.
MOVIE THEATERS nationwide have been upgrading menus for more than a decade, with growth in concession sales sometimes salvaging the bottom line when ticket revenue lags.
AMC, the country’s largest theater chain, in an April report to investors stated that food and beverage sales made up 33% of its revenue in 2018, up from 28% in 2011. Per-patron spending — called “per cap” in the industry — was just over $5, an increase of 3.9%. Reading International, in its shareholder report, listed its per cap at $4.99 last year.
In Hawaii, Regal Dole Cannery offered a coffee bar and elevated food items for a limited time several years ago. In 2016, a just-renovated Consolidated Theatre Ward introduced menu items such as banh mi hot dogs, pizzas, desserts and fries. In Kapolei that year, Olino and Regal Kapolei Commons opened with more items, including burgers.
Consolidated’s new menus, introduced in June in Mililani, represent the next level, with more items prepared fresh, rather than premade and kept warm, or reheated. Ishizu said chicken cutlets and waffles come frozen, but burger patties, sauces, dressings and gravy are all made in the theater kitchens. Vegetables and fruit are prepared fresh. (Regal Cinemas did not respond to requests for comment.)
Consolidated declined to release specific revenue figures, but Ishizu said she has observed an increase in sales. The limited upgraded menu at Ward brings in $2 more per customer than a traditional popcorn-and-hot dog menu, she said, and the Mililani-Kapolei menu brings in $4 more than the traditional. “The more types of food you can give to people, our bottom line goes up.”
THE PRINCIPAL challenge facing the concession stand, Santos said: “You’re working with rules that you don’t set.”
On a weekend, 400 to 500 people could show up for a blockbuster film, he said, wanting to be served in a few minutes so they can grab their seats. Restaurants simply don’t face that kind of pacing.
“Reserved seating has helped us greatly,” Ishizu added. “Now they’re not in as big of a rush because they know they’ve got that seat in there.”
Still, her aim is to serve every dish in 10 minutes or less. The method for preparing each dish is designed with that in mind.
At Mililani, the concession staff had little kitchen experience beyond serving hot dogs, Loo said. They were trained to cook and to mix drinks. “It’s kind of like a mini-culinary academy.”
What’s next? Many AMC theaters on the mainland offer mobile ordering so there’s no waiting in a concession line. At the Cal Oaks theater in Murrieta, Calif., owned by Consolidated’s parent company, Reading, customers can be served at their seats.
Other locations offer lounges for preshow dining; Olino already has a patio set with tables (no worries about dining in the dark).
But even if you are eating at your seat, having dinner while watching a movie is simply practical, said Kyler Kokubun, marketing coordinator for Consolidated. “You don’t have to drive anywhere else, you don’t need to make a reservation anywhere else.”
No rushing through a meal, worried if you’ll make your showtime. On top of that, Kokubun said, “no one sees you eat.”