This post is part of Nosh, a special pop-up blog about snacks. Read more here.
When I worked at a movie theater, I learned that you could sell people the wrong tickets, or leave a theater uncleaned, and nobody would blink an eye. But if you were skimpy with the popcorn or switched Coke for Diet Coke, you’d better gird your loins. However, for all my attention to customers’ precious dietary needs, our respect was never a two-way street. I was reminded of this every shift, when I found contraband food and drinks stuffed in cup holders and strewn across the floor.
I understand that everybody sneaks snacks into the movies, of course. It’s the blatant leaving that really Juniors my Mint. Theaters prefer that customers buy from their concession stands—at my former workplace, Amherst Cinema in Western Massachusetts, it accounted for a substantial chunk of revenue—yet moviegoers still leave their rule-flouting detritus in the cup holders and aisles. Some dissenters are so brazen, it’s almost admirable. One time, a customer approached me wielding a bottle of Perrier. “This won’t fit in the cup holders in the studio theater,” she snapped. I blinked up at her. “OK,” I answered, dumbfounded. We did not sell Perrier.
As cinematic snack culture has evolved, so too have cinemas: Some, like hip chain Alamo Drafthouse, have forgone the snack bar altogether in favor of honest-to-God table service. Some places sell alcohol or funky local treats along with the tried-and-true trinity of soda, popcorn, and candy. To find out how different cinema environments have affected snack smuggling and how staffers are coping, I reached out to some compatriots on the customer service front lines.
I found that every employee I spoke to had cleaned up sneaked-in snacks at one time or another. Julie Brooks, the manager for Florida State University’s Student Life Cinema, adopted a beleaguered tone when asked how often she encountered contraband goods. “Every screening,” she sighed. “In a perfect world, it wouldn’t happen at all, but I think we’re a special case since we’re by students for students.”
I regrettably informed her that this was a regular thing in the adult world as well—a point backed up by my other interviews, where employees said they found smuggled goods anywhere from “about 20 percent of the time” to “almost every show.” Gary Jackson, manager at the Fort 8 Theatre in Fort Dodge, Iowa, for the past 18 years, said he was usually able to catch people in the act. “Most of the time they’ll have a pop in their hand,” he explained Midwestern-ly. The theater doesn’t allow backpacks, which is undoubtedly a huge help.
The staffs at other theaters aren’t quite as lucky. Manager Samson Dolly-King of the State Theatre in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said he regularly finds Starbucks cups and Chipotle-branded trash during cleanup. Dan Biegner, projectionist at Amherst Cinema (and my former boss), said he once found cupcakes and Fireball whiskey: “Someone was having a birthday party, but I can’t tell if that’s a good or a bad one.”
Dillon Cole, projectionist and manager at the Lyric in Fort Collins, Colorado, once recovered a box of Franzia from under the seats. “And 20 bucks,” he told me. “So joke’s on them!”
Mostly, it seemed like scofflaw customers were just aiming to enhance their experiences with dinner and a show. My friend and colleague Lillian Sickler wrote me earlier this week with an anecdote from our pal Claire Crews, who works on the floor at Amherst Cinema: “Dear Lena, Claire wants me to tell you that she found a half-pint container of seafood salad in Theater 2 a few weeks ago.”
Leftovers remain a problem even at Gary Jackson’s Fort 8, where they run a more mainstream operation with menu items like nachos or Icees. Jackson, Ann Arbor manager Samson Dolly-King, and FSU’s Julie Brooks have all found fast-food wrappings in their theaters.
“I think it’s more a matter of convenience,” Dolly-King reasoned, “and also, like, the [concession stand] prices are too high for people.”
Despite all their culinary gatekeeping, do movie-theater employees themselves ever succumb to this criminal culture? “Not kosher, but yes,” Biegner admitted. “I always make it a point to buy something from the theater, but usually I’ll sneak in a candy and then buy a drink or popcorn.”
Dolly-King sheepishly confessed a similar moral code. “But,” he clarified, “not at the theater where I work.”
Julie Brooks does not play so fast and loose with the rules. “After I started working at a theater, I don’t [sneak food in] anymore, because I know what a pain in the butt it can be for people.” She should know—she once had to clean up an entire 1-pound bag of uncooked rice after an interactive screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Rice, which Rocky Horror fans sometimes throw during a wedding scene, was explicitly barred from the screening.
Each worker I spoke to seemed accepting of, if annoyed by, rule-breaking food smugglers. One employee from a Los Angeles theater, however, was unafraid to get real. I told him I was hoping to speak to someone for a piece on patrons who sneak snacks into movie theaters.
“Well,” he quipped, with all the irony of a true customer service representative, “here we just beat ’em to death.”
Read more from Nosh here.