The operators of Omaha's Midtown Cinema believe they can make more money with fewer seats.
The theater's owner recently replaced about 275 general admission seats in the Midtown Crossing theater with 100 CineDine seats, bringing to about 450 the total number of the premium seats where moviegoers can order and eat a meal while they watch a film.
The theater has also removed its concessions stand and will now allow patrons to order popcorn and candy from their seats, alongside cocktails and more upscale menu items such as baby back ribs, an Asian grilled shrimp wrap and Mediterranean pizza.
Milwaukee-based Marcus Theatres opened the theater in 2009 and it remains the only metro-area cinema to offer in-seat dining with a waiter and a menu.
“When the theater was built a couple of years ago, the first few rows of each auditorium had conventional seating,” Marcus spokesman Carlo Petrick said. “Those seats were not being utilized as much as we thought they might be, and more people wanted to have the in-theater dining experience of CineDine.”
Petrick said he couldn't share sales figures but said there weren't as many customers as Marcus expected who wanted to come to the theater but not share in the experience of eating a meal.
“People learned very quickly that if you wanted to have a meal and watch a movie, that Midtown CineDine was the place to do that, and people sought us out for that. It's very rare for people to come and not order anything.”
Providing CineDine enables Marcus to capture profits from both the dinner and the movie portion of a typical evening out. Petrick said customers like that they can park in one spot for both experiences and save time, which can mean saving on baby-sitting costs.
Ticket prices for CineDine are comparable to a standard movie theater: $10 for an evening adult ticket plus a $1 “convenience fee” for the ability to reserve a specific seat. There are also VIP tickets available for the balcony, for $12 plus the $1 fee. Prices for sandwiches and entrees range from $8.95 to $16.95.
Patrons tip, as in a restaurant, if they feel the service merits it, Petrick said.
Theater manager Jessi Sumner said she sees lots of regular customers who appreciate being able to order from their seats.
“It's a convenience thing,” she said.
The theater this summer upgraded its menu to include better-quality items, she said. While originally the theater thought customers would want more “finger foods” that are easier to eat in the dark, it turned out they wanted real entrees, including pasta and salads.
“It's just a much more complex menu,” she said. “People don't want the basics. They know they're not going to a steakhouse but they still want quality food.”
The theater often ties menu items into the theme of the film, such as “red eye meatball sliders,” a “wolf pack prime dip” sandwich and “blood red velvet cake” for “Breaking Dawn,” the second film in the Twilight Saga vampire series, now playing.
Theaters started offering dine-in service about five years ago, and the nation's two largest theater chains, Regal and AMC, both offer in-theater dining in growing but limited numbers of theaters.
Petrick said Marcus is evaluating its other locations to see if it makes sense to add dining. That would involve adding a full-service kitchen and redesigning the auditorium.
The company owns or manages 687 screens in 55 locations in the Midwest and Great Plains, but besides Omaha, it offers full-service dining only at three of the 16 screens at its Brookfield, Wis., location.
Petrick said the service makes sense at Midtown Crossing.
“Midtown is being designed as an entertainment and retail destination,” he said. “This is just another unique aspect of that destination.”
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