Nickelodeon theaters can be credited with providing movie entertainment in a venue that gave movie theater food its start. At a time when stage plays, vaudeville acts and live performances still dominated, the Nickelodeon theater became an unassuming competitor in the entertainment venue. It didn’t take long for the movie theater concept to take hold and by 1907 there were about 3,000 theaters opened. Nearly 27% of those with access were visiting these theaters once a week. Movie theater food was the logical next step to cement the entertainment value of the whole movie-going experience.
Theater concessions didn’t automatically get its start in the theater lobby. It garnered a place on the sidewalks and areas surrounding the theater in vending carts and separate storefronts. Vendor could also be seen selling their snack items like popcorn and peanut by walking up and down the theater aisles. The biggest hit in concessions was popcorn. It’s enticing aroma, well remembered from county fair and carnivals as far back as the mid-1800s, became popular with movie goers. Popcorn would set the stage for movie theater food.
While trying to maintain an upscale image, theater owners weren’t too thrilled with the snack munching or its cleanup in their theaters. With the expense of building a theater, they also weren’t interested the popcorn kernels and candy wrapped littering their posh investments. Some two decades after its first introduction, movie theater food was embraced by theater owners as a great way to make more money from their patrons. Owning the concessions, instead of independent vendors, became the way to go.
Theater builders came to terms with the popularity of concessions and soon capitalized on incorporating the candy counter into their architectural designs of humble neighborhood theaters. The focus from posh to popular saw the introduction of chocolates and candy apples and then mass produced items like Baby Ruths, Raisinets and Milk Duds.
A minor setback occurred during World War II when sugar was rationed and budgets were tight. This only served to boost the popularity of popcorn which continues, today, to be the No. 1 favorite. When rationing ended along with the War, snack selections rebounded and movie concession grew. Soda flowed as did the Goobers, Junior Mints, Chuckles and Black Crows.
Would you be surprised to learn that over 40% of a theater’s net revenue today comes from movie theater food? Whether you love the salty, buttery flavor of a bucket of popcorn or like the sweet sugary chew of a Twizzler’s licorice vine, movie theater food just tastes better. Where else can you indulge and enjoy these treats but in an entertainment setting all part of the experience? Anywhere else is just not the same.
You can find center stage (pun intended) movie food concessions in just about every theater today. Gourmet offerings, local specialty foods and super sizes all now added to enhance the visit and put more money in the theater’s coffers. You can still get the standard fair but now you may have the option for chili-cheese fries, chicken fingers, salads, nachos, hot dogs and even sushi.
Some theaters are looking to capture the more mature movie-goers by offering alcohol, full-service restaurants combined with other amenities.
Even as movie theater food has evolved, the old standbys are still the biggest moneymakers. It’s the smell of hot buttered popcorn that invades the senses. It’s the one place where you can still, without guilt, gorge on your favorite junk food. It’s this very food that evokes nostalgic memories of a first date, or a dark theater or a favorite film and keeps us coming back.