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THE MULTIPLEX

If movie theaters made concessions to health ...

... What would be on sale in the lobby? (And would you buy it?) We ask chefs -- and check with the industry.

March 28, 2010|By Mary MacVean

Standing in those glaring lights at the movie theater concession stand, peering into the glass case, you could look at things two ways.

From one perspective, that popcorn in a tub big enough to bathe a puppy and that barrel-sized soda will set you back for weeks in discretionary calories. Or else, you get to the movies only once a month -- and geez, it's popcorn, for crying out loud; isn't that healthful?

If the popcorn was air-popped, would you buy it? Would you settle in for "Avatar" with a piece of fruit instead of a giant box of Milk Duds?

"I want to go on the record as saying I would never eat an apple at a movie theater. It goes against everything I stand for," said Eric Greenspan, the chef-owner of the Foundry on Melrose. "But is there a call for that? Yeah, I think there is."

Greenspan was among the chefs we asked for ideas for healthful snacks at movie concession stands -- which might be an idea whose time has come. Michael Lynton, the chairman and chief executive at Sony Pictures, recently urged theater owners at an industry convention to clean up their concession act. He was inspired in part, a spokesman said, by taking his own young children to movies.

Lynton called obesity in America "an epidemic of major proportions" that "required everyone to chip in to stem the tide." The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, headed by former President Clinton, has offered to help theaters come up with new ideas.

At least some healthy eaters are avoiding the concession stand altogether. "My wife and I are notorious for popping our own popcorn and smuggling it in in a brown paper bag," said Lee Gross, the consulting chef for M Cafe de Chaya.

Lynton cited a poll his company commissioned that found that two-thirds of moviegoers and three-quarters of parents would buy more healthful options at prices similar to what's being sold now.

Many theaters have switched to more healthful popping oils such as canola and toppings such as black pepper or garlic powder, said Susan Cross, spokeswoman for the National Assn. of Concessionaires.

But snack stands sell what people buy, she added. If healthful snacks are what people want, concessions "will sell it to them. But they have to actually buy it. It's not complicated," Cross said.

"We have found that people talk healthy, but they eat what tastes good," said Kevin Boylan, owner of the Veggie Grill in Hollywood. "It is very difficult to prepare food that people will find enticing and at the same time has an attractive nutritional profile."

"You have to think about the sensations you want -- crunchy, salty, something you can not think about and just pop in your mouth," said Ilan Hall, whose downtown restaurant the Gorbals features the likes of bacon-wrapped matzo balls.

But he was up to the challenge and came up with "a thoughtful blend of dried fruits" and nuts as well as freeze-dried vegetables similar to a snack sold in Asian markets.

Some theaters already offer broader choices or have cafes attached to them.

Gold Class Cinemas, which has a Pasadena location, has popcorn -- popped to order -- and candy, but patrons can also choose from a menu that has such dishes as lemon grilled chicken sate and mixed berries, said Mark Mulcahy, vice president of marketing. And at the Landmark Theatres outlet at the Westside Pavilion, there are 65 items, including salads and sugar-free lattes, said Ted Mundorff, the CEO.

There are other possibilities:

* First, the popcorn. It sells big, and it smells big. Once that aroma hits, it's hard to pass it by. But it can be a big-ticket item: One national chain sells a "medium" popcorn with 1,200 calories, 60 grams of fat.

There's fat-free air-popped popcorn. Theater owners could scour garage sales and find all those air poppers well-intentioned people bought and never used.

In fact, theaters tried air-popping corn back in 1994. "After very little time, movie patrons in droves made their voices heard -- they wanted the traditional popcorn back," the National Assn. of Theatre Owners said in a statement a few months ago.

* Raw vegetables. About as healthful as it gets, right? But do you really want to sit next to someone crunching carrots and celery for two hours?

Evan Kleiman, chef-owner of Angeli Caffe, suggested fruit and vegetables with peanut butter for dipping. And frozen yogurt.

* Good coffee. Greenspan was all over this one. Like many people, he finds that comfy movie seat in the dark to be a sedative, so he'd like to see a good espresso machine behind the glass case.

Stefan Richter, the chef at L.A. Farm in Santa Monica, said he loves going to the movies. "I would eat hummus or a fruit platter or a cheese platter. I would." They're not offered, however, so what does he eat? "You really want to know? Those tortillas with cheese sauce. And a couple of hot dogs."

Say you're a teenager on an allowance. If the water costs nearly the same as the Mountain Dew, where are you going to invest? How about cups of water for a dime? Or for free? And Corina Weibel, chef and co-owner of Canelé in Atwater Village, suggested Mexican-style fruit drinks called agua frescas.

Greenspan said he'll still want popcorn on the rare occasions he goes to the movies, but he'd buy popcorn that was lower in fat if it was for sale -- "and then I would ask for more butter." Maybe he was joking.

mary.macvean@latimes.com

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