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Breaking Into Popcorn's Market : Theaters: Two young entrepreneurs find success with Taste of Nature snack fare.

February 18, 1994|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Moviehouse snack counters historically have been willing to sell theatergoers anything as long as it crunched and came with or without a butter-like substance.

Popcorn--or so the industry truism goes--was the staple of the theater operator, maybe more than the film itself. But two young Los Angeles entrepreneurs have been turning a tasty profit by targeting movie audiences with a line of healthier, or at least hipper, snacks.

In little more than 18 months, Douglas Chu and Scott Samet have managed to sell their bulk trail mixes, dried fruits and yogurt-covered snacks to concession stands serving 1,000-plus movie screens in 25 states--and they are hungrily eyeing the remaining 24,000 or so screens.

"Since more people are eating healthier these days, the idea was to bring some healthier snacks into the theaters," said Samet, who started Taste of Nature with Chu in mid-1992 with only $15,000. "The growth has been explosive."

Chu and Samet refuse to reveal their exact revenue, but they say they're plowing all their profit back into the business.

It began with a modest debut at Metropolitan Theaters' Santa Barbara operations but has spread to snack counters at nearly two dozen other chains, including AMC, General Cinema, Edwards and Cineplex Odeon. The latest sales have been to theaters in the South.

"I didn't think it would work in Tennessee," said Chu, who, like his partner, is 25. "But hell, it's going through the pipeline."

Samet and Chu trace their success to the unusual product display and to the snacks' unexpectedly broad appeal. Taste of Nature's customers, their research has shown, come from the mass of moviegoers--estimated at one-half to two-thirds of the audience--who weren't snack buyers. That trend allays the fears of theater owners who don't want to trade high-profit popcorn sales for other items, Samet said.

"We thought our demographics would be the yuppie, health-conscious, young adult and females who were watching their waistlines," Chu said. "Then we sold Barstow."

The movie concession business, which took in nearly $1.5 billion in 1993, has tried many different items in recent years to increase customer interest, said Charles A. Winans, executive director of the Chicago-based National Assn. of Concessionaires.

"There have been different fads that have come and gone," Winans said.

At the 85-screen Harkins Theaters chain, the Taste of Nature snacks have "gone over very well," said Vice President Wayne Kullander. The Phoenix-based chain emphasizes gourmet items, including imported chocolates and bottled waters.

And while these treats may be healthier than, say, the industrial-size Milk Duds with a cola chaser, don't expect to slim down with this stuff. A five-ounce bag of dried apricots weighs in at nearly 500 calories. And trail mix? Don't even ask. "It's just an attempt by us to give people an alternative," Kullander said.

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