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West Virginia theater offers free popcorn, drink refills

by MEGAN WORKMAN The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette on May 29, 2013 10:49 AM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Larry Miller topped his movie theater popcorn with butter, filled his drink cup with Sierra Mist and started back for seconds before his 2:40 p.m. showing.

The 27-year-old planned to add more of the buttery, salty snack and a mixture of the lemon-lime soda with Tropicana juice on round two.

He asked why wouldn’t he? All the refills are free.

Park Place Stadium Cinemas downtown recently introduced its complete self-serve concession system.

Moviegoers have been able to buy a $3.25 small or $3.75 large drink and refill it for free with another Pepsi product, ICEE frozen drink or tea for the past couple of weeks, said Greg Pauley, vice president of the Greater Huntington Theatre Corp., which owns the Charleston cinema.

Free chili and cheese refills for nachos have also been an option since May 3, he said.

But four large, brand new warmers with “popcorn” in bright red lights and the neon yellow snack packed inside stood across from the concession stand recently.

After customers buy a $4 small bag, $5 large bag, or $6 tub of popcorn they walk over to the self-serve stand and pull the handle to release the popped kernels. If they want to add butter before the bag is full, they’ll just have to push a button in the center of the stand.

Then, they can go back to filling the bag with more popcorn, adding more butter or — if salt alone isn’t enough — patrons can choose one of five seasonings to sprinkle on top.

Park Place pops its own kernels and tosses nearly 90 gallons of popcorn into each dispensing unit.

The four self-serve popcorn stands cost $36,000 combined, Pauley said. While that’s expensive, he said it’s all part of the change Park Place must go through to continue today.

Movie theater employees have been handing popcorn across the counter for years.

“That’s how it’s always been done,” he said.

But sometimes, a business has to try something different. In this case, the customers really like it, he said.

“It’s all about allowing customers to really make everything the way that they like it and it gives them a lot more flexibility,” Pauley said. “We’ve been selling concessions in theaters for 75 years now and sometimes it’s time to make a change.”

Park Place has made other changes in the past year to attract more movie watchers to its theater, he said.

Pauley said the company has spent $100,000 to remodel the theater’s lobby by adding new tiling, concession stand counters, paint, the popcorn units and other updates.

The theater spent $800,000 last year to add digital projectors with digital sound.

Pauley said the self-serve concession stand, however, is the “most drastic” change Park Place has seen since it opened in 1980.

“With the digital projectors, some people may not know the difference between projectors and film, but when people walk into the theater now, they’re going to say, ‘Wow, this is different,’” Pauley said.

Park Place Manager Michael Tawney said the self-serve popcorn machines intimidated some customers when they made their debut.

One woman, who purchased a drink and a bag for popcorn, accidentally filled her drink cup with popcorn.

“Everything has gone smoothly today but we’re all learning,” Tawney said.

“It’s not just the customers learning, it’s a learning experience for all of us.”

Pauley said the self-serve stations wouldn’t replace any of Park Place’s 35 employees, who will still run the popcorn machine, take orders at the concession counter, and keep the stations full and clean.

For customers who typically avoid the concession stand, he said they might be inclined to take advantage of the free refill offer now.

“We anticipate we’re going to get more customers coming into our theater because of this system,” Pauley said. “It will make more people come downtown and go to our theater as opposed to ... others.”

Pauley said he wants to encourage others that “you can make more money by charging less and selling more.”

Park Place’s large popcorn, for example, dropped from $5.75 to $5 with the self-serve switch. He got the idea after spending time at a movie theater in New Mexico that offered the same model.

Pauley said he was “in awe of the reaction of customers,” so he brought it to his Charleston theater.

He sees it as a positive move for the movie theater.

“It is a little out of the norm, isn’t it? I’ve been in this business for 38 years and if you told me I was going to be doing all-you-can eat popcorn and all-you-can drink Pepsi and slushies, I would have said ‘no,’” he said. “We’ve put a lot of money into the theater and we have a lot of good feelings about being in Charleston and downtown.”

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