By Michelle Duncan, formerly from The Tech and now at Flying Fish Exhibits

“There are choices that you can make to help achieve your revenue and operational goals for your concessions stand, from pricing to product choice and even to sizing.”

The IMAX® Dome Theater at The Tech Museum in San Jose, California, opened in 1998. In 2003, we began to offer traditional movie concessions. I know that some institutional giant screens are just dipping their toes into the concessions world. As we approach our twentieth anniversary, we feel we have achieved a balance that works for us. But when it comes to concessions, the only right way to do it is the way that fits comfortably into your institution’s operating model.

Let’s explore the world of concessions, which is located somewhere, over the rainbow.

Life in the Cyclone

Like that twister that swept up Dorothy, there are few frenzies that match the 15-minute window for a 40-minute documentary show load. It’s difficult enough to get those kids organized and into their seats—and now you want to throw popcorn into the mix? Are you crazy? The answer is yes, maybe just a little bit, but there is a method to the madness!

One of our keys to success is offering pre-purchased snack packs, promoted at the time of booking by our group sales team and paid for as part of the order. This is by far the easiest way to approach mass sales. Our snack pack includes popcorn, a packaged juice, and fruit snacks. It is notoffered for individual sale at the concessions stand, which is an added incentive for teachers looking for an equitable approach to snacks. The snack packs can be filled in advance of the group’s arrival and picked up as the group walks into the theater.

Another key is speed. You only have a limited window of time to prepare and sell concessions, so make it work for you. Provide fewer choices for indecisive kids, ensure proper preparation, select an easy-to-use point of sale system, and employ extra hands to enable your team to knock out that school group line before the ushers close the door and dim the lights.

The House That Landed With a Crash

The BOOM you heard was your CFO’s jaw when he saw your revenue. Our stand is small (less than 100 square feet), and it’s typically staffed by one or two people. Packed into that area are two registers, a bottled drink refrigerator, a Coke Freestyle dispenser, a popcorn popper, and an ICEE machine. On our menu: four popcorn sizes, three soda sizes, two ICEE sizes, 12 types of candy, and prepackaged nachos.

We generate around $250,000–$275,000 a year in concessions sales. Of that, roughly 75 percent is from typical movie staples: popcorn and free-pour drinks. In our case, 50 percent is from popcorn and the Freestyle dispenser, and 25 percent comes from the sale of ICEEs. Popcorn, sodas, and ICEEs are the highest profit-margin items our concessions stand offers.

With your accounting team singing like the residents of Munchkinland, let’s skip our way to Oz.

The Heart

The beating heart of your concessions stand is the team that makes it happen. It is our job to prepare them, to give them the tools they need to serve our guests, to appreciate what it takes to pull off those rushes of kids, and to instill in them that speed is the key to seeing the end of the line. Here are some extra tips for concessions team success:

  • Appreciate the patience it takes to complete a sale to a group of four fifth-graders, with $5 each, pooling their money and trying to decide what they can afford to buy and that they all will agree to eat—all while your cashier is watching the line form behind them and the clock is ticking closer and closer to showtime.
  • Maximize your concessions space so that staff movement is limited. The more things your cashier can handle immediately from the register, the faster the sale will be—plus, that minimizes the chances of an unfortunate popcorn collision happening in the rush.
  • Train all members of your team to fill any role in your theater’s floor operations. That gives you flexibility to put people where help is needed most. And this isn’t limited to your theater team. On busy days, you’ll often find our CFO popping popcorn and filling ICEE orders or our Guest Services team assisting with snack packs.

The Brain

There are choices that you can make to help achieve your revenue and operational goals for your concessions stand, from pricing to product choice and even to sizing.

  • Let’s talk pricing and those four fifth-graders I mentioned earlier. As difficult as it is already for them to make a decision, it will slow them down even more if they have to add in sales tax. For this reason, our posted pricing includes any applicable sales taxes. This creates some extra work on the back end, but it’s well worth it to help speed up the sales during those critically busy times.
  • Product choices not only speed up your sales, they can also help you turn your theater over in a timely fashion for the next show without causing a mutiny by your ushers or custodial team. All our bagged candy options are in packaging that is easy to clean up, and nothing is individually wrapped. We take the same approach with our soda sizes. Ranging from 12 to 24 ounces, they can be easily consumed in a 45-minute period, helping the usher staff to clean faster with less spillage.
  • A Coke Freestyle machine enables you to offer 100+ flavors of soda, water, and iced tea. There is a monthly fee to rent the machine, but it’s a guest favorite. Sometimes it even shows up in social media selfies.
  • Learn to love ICEEs. Working with your local distributor, the ICEE unit is free and requires no monthly rental fee. Kids love the fun flavors, an ICEE is easily shareable, and spills can typically be scraped back into the cup with no puddle for kids to step in.

The Courage

All right, I’ll go in there for Dorothy. Wicked Witch or no Wicked Witch, guards or no guards, I’ll tear them apart. I may not come out alive, but I’m going in there.”—The Cowardly Lion

Have no fear! Operating a successful institutional concessions program is similar to operating a successful institutional theater. It takes a mix of proper planning, ongoing training, and knowing your audience. Which brings us to …

The Man Behind the Curtain

… to whom you will definitely want to pay attention. At our location we’re lucky enough to run our own concessions stand. In some locations, this is handled by the on-site cafe vendor. If you’re able to manage concessions under your theater operation, here are a few key points that you’ll want to consider.

  • Select a supervisor. You need a theater lead or supervisor to manage the day-to-day operations. For us, that person tracks inventory, places orders, coordinates with vendors, trains all team members on concessions operations, ensures compliance with the health code, and keeps a close eye on cash management. These duties are in addition to maintaining floor operations.
  • Storage guidelines. Storage space is almost always at a premium, so make sure you have an area that meets health code guidelines for packaged food storage.
  • Health permits. If you’re serving popcorn, you’ll mostly likely need to have a health permit. Check with your local health department on the requirements for your location, staff certification, and the yearly expense of the permit.
  • Never stop learning. Within an educational institution, the concessions stand can also be a learning area. How to present money, accept change, and place an order are all key social skills. I very often hear my team coaching kids, some of whom have never placed an order on their own before.
  • Custodial needs increase. We trained our ushers to clean effectively in those precious five to seven minutes between shows, and our facilities team does a full nightly cleaning and regular carpet cleaning. These additional costs need to be factored into your concessions expenses.
Dorothy’s travels down the yellow brick road provided insight to her daily life back on Auntie Em and Uncle Henry’s farm. I hope that this little trip has given you a glimpse into the possibilities concessions can provide.