Chef Jessica James stood in the gleaming test kitchen at AMC Theatres’ corporate headquarters in Leawood and showed off a few of her favorite creations.
On the table: a sweet and savory chicken and waffle sandwich, a loaded Sriracha dog topped with crispy jalapeños, a tongue-tingling Buffalo chicken flatbread pizza and a 1.5-pound salted pretzel called the Bavarian Legend.
It’s all part of AMC’s new Feature Fare menu, which goes far, far away from popcorn, candy and soda.
“We’re reinventing how folks think about the concession stand,” said James, who oversees the food at more than 600 AMC theaters.
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Feature Fare is the biggest menu update ever for AMC, America’s largest movie theater chain. It rolls out nationwide this month, but AMC has been testing it in Kansas City area theaters for weeks.
The expanded menu also features flavored gourmet popcorn, prepackaged gluten-free snacks, Harvest nut blends and Hillshire “small plates” with cured meats, cheese and crackers.
Prices range from $5.89 for a hot dog to $14.99 for the Bavarian Legend pretzel, which is big enough to feed two or more people. In Kansas City, the chili dogs and baked-to-order pretzel bites have been particularly popular.
On a recent Saturday evening, most of the moviegoers swarming the concession stand at Leawood’s AMC Town Center 20 walked away with big buckets of buttered popcorn (which costs $8.49 for a large), bags of M&Ms or both. But some stopped to sample the new Feature Fare.
One man ordered eight loaded dogs for his group, which left the employees behind the hot food counter scrambling to grill more in a hurry. Another customer waited a few minutes for his four-cheese flatbread pizza to bake and said it was worth the delay: “These are awesome.”
Lisa Williams of Grandview grabbed a Hillshire snack pack because “it’s a healthier choice” before speed-walking through the lobby to an Imax showing of “Wonder Woman.”
Not everyone was pleased with the menu changes. Sarah and Jonathan Wilson of Lee’s Summit were disappointed when they couldn’t find their go-to Frito pie. They ordered pepperoni flatbread pizza and chicken tenders instead.
“It’s easy for us to do everything at once,” Sarah said of their frequent dinner-and-a-movie dates.
AMC’s concessions overhaul was designed to appeal to a wide range of customers — fast food lovers and health nuts — and to get more moviegoers to skip the restaurant and buy dinner at the theater.
Feature Fare is part of a larger industry movement that’s all about offering more options to consumers, said Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer for the National Association of Theatre Owners.
If you’ve been to a movie lately you’ve probably seen other indicators of the trend: extra-wide reclining seats, full-service bars with alcohol and reserved seating that allows ticket-holders to pop in right before showtime. All are designed to entice movie fans to part with their couch (and Netflix queue) for a night.
Food is another attraction theaters are using to sell tickets. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Corcoran said that in the early days of cinema, theater owners banned food and drinks because they didn’t want their seats and floors to get dirty. But when they saw their customers line up outside to buy popcorn and candy from sidewalk vendors, they changed their policy, and the movie concession stand was born.
In the 1990s, smaller theater chains such as Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse, which has a location at 1400 Main St., started experimenting with dine-in theaters.
“Initially there was some resistance from the studios,” Corcoran said. “They didn’t want their first-run movies shown when people were eating meals — they thought it was a distraction.”
But the concept caught on, and studios and larger chains got on board with the trend. In 2008, AMC added theaters that operated like restaurants, complete with tables and full service.
“Initially when we got into the dine-in business there was some skepticism” from moviegoers and from potential employees, said Jennifer Douglass, vice president of AMC’s dine-in theater operations.
“We had to get them over that,” she said. “We’re not just serving popcorn, we’re bringing in whole heads of lettuce and whole chickens and breaking them down.”
The chain now runs 43 dine-in theaters, including the AMC Studio 28 at 12075 S. Strang Line Road in Olathe. Other local theaters that serve food include Cinetopia, 5724 W. 136th Terrace in Overland Park, and Screenland Tapcade, 1701 McGee St. in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District.
AMC’s Feature Fare is different because it brings restaurant-style food to the concession stand, where it’s available to all moviegoers, not just those with tickets to showings at the dine-in theaters. The idea came from AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron, who challenged the culinary team to revamp the chain’s food offerings.
“He didn’t put us in a tight box,” said James, whose father-in-law is Kansas City Mayor Sly James. “He told us to improve the quality and give more variety to guests.”
AMC’s team of four chefs started working on the new menu a year ago. They scrawled hundreds of ideas on white boards, and after months of research and recipe testing, ended up with 31 new items.
One of the biggest challenges was designing food that could be eaten in a dark theater without a table or silverware.
“If you can eat it while you’re driving, you can eat it comfortably in our environment,” said Nels Storm, senior culinary director.
Parts of the recipe testing process were particularly fun for the chefs. One day, they did a blind taste test comparing several brands of all-beef hot dogs. In the end, Chicago’s Eisenberg beat Hebrew National and Nathan’s Famous by a landslide.
The team presented three loaded hot dogs to Aron. The Philadelphia native insisted they add a fourth dog topped with sauerkraut and spicy brown mustard: Gulden’s, to be exact.
Some ideas were left on the cutting room floor.
“We developed a really killer garlic knot,” James said. “It was incredible, but it reeked.”
Not every moviegoer wants to smell garlic while they’re trying to watch a fun superhero flick (Think “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) or a tense war film (“Dunkirk”).
Many of the new menu items were inspired by hot restaurant industry trends, including the pretzel bites — which, like the hot dogs, come in four flavors — and the chicken and waffle sandwich.
The sandwich features a golden all-breast fillet wedged between two Belgian-style liège waffles. Maple syrup would be too messy for movie food, so James added pearl sugar to the waffles for sweetness and crunch.
“It balances savory and sweet very well,” Storm said. “It’s very umami.”
The chicken and waffle sandwich is also easy for AMC workers to assemble, which is key to maintaining consistency and quality across hundreds of locations.
“We have 16-, 17-year-old kids behind the stand executing these orders,” James said. “We kept that in mind from Day 1: Things have to be simple.”
The chefs worked with theater managers to overhaul kitchen equipment and train employees. They also collaborated with AMC’s marketing department to design sturdier packaging that makes the new Feature Fare easier to eat.
That Saturday evening at the Leawood AMC theater, concession stand employees hustled to take orders, toss hot pretzel bites with cinnamon and sugar, and keep the grill stocked with Eisenberg dogs.
“We got pizza up in a minute-20,” one of them called out as a teenager walked by with a box of cheeseburger sliders.
This is what dinner and a movie looks like in 2017.
“As long as guests keep responding to it,” Storm said, “we’ll keep pushing the envelope.”