Concession Stand Confidential

by Marty Demarest

If you work in the food service industry, or know somebody who does, you probably know what "secret shoppers" are. They're those seemingly ordinary people who come into the place you work and order innocuous things. They ask a few questions, hang out for a few minutes, then leave. But while they're there, they're busy doing things like timing how long it takes you to help them, checking the bathrooms for cleanliness, and watching the way that employees interact with customers. They also check the food.

Secret shoppers can be anybody. Big businesses often employ companies whose sole job it is to provide a group of specialized shoppers. (I once knew a guy whose job was being the secret shopper for Taco Bell drive-thrus. He knew that there was also someone who actually went into the stores, but they never met. Armed with scales, thermometers, and a watch, they continually canvassed the entire Washington, D.C., area.) Smaller businesses aren't free from the prying eyes of these investigators, either -- they're just less consistent. The best friend of the owner, or a regular customer, can often provide comments that let the management know how well the business is actually doing.

The one saving grace of secret shoppers is that they're secret. Their activities might affect plenty of jobs, but not everyone has to know about what's going on. The company is less concerned with the public's idea of quality and consistency, and more interested in making sure that their internal standards are met. But we've decided to make the standards public -- at least the ones practiced by area movie theaters.

Here's what we decided to do: In each of five area movie theaters (Newport, NorthTown, Garland, AMC, and Valley Mall), we ordered medium and large popcorns. We ordered hot dogs and purchased large sodas. We didn't see any movies (and we didn't check the bathrooms, either). Instead, we quickly got into our secret shopper mobiles and strained all the ice out of the soda, so that we could accurately measure the ratio of ice to soda. Finally, we headed to our hidden junk-food lair to measure and weigh the food we had obtained.

We started with that icon of the multiplex, popcorn. Garland, the iconoclast of cinemas, sells a medium for $3.75; but you can get the same size, with unlimited refills, for $4.50. (Since we were weighing the popcorn, and dividing it by price, we opted to take a single refill.) AMC sells its large popcorns for $4.75, and its mediums for a dollar less. Regal, in contrast, is generally pricier, but the upgrade from medium to large is less of a jump -- $4.25 to $5.00.

Which theater gives you more for your money? Garland, it turns out. Even if you only ate the medium popcorn, and didn't opt for the refillable tub, your popcorn costs less there than anywhere else. The next-best bargain we found was at NorthTown, followed by the Valley, and Newport. AMC charges the most for its popcorn.

As for quality, we evaluated this the only way we knew how: grabbing large handfuls and shoving it into our mouths. Based on general taste, and lingering lip saltiness and oiliness, we concluded that AMC offered the best all-around popcorn. It wasn't too salty, and it had the richest, most authentic butter flavor. Regal, at each of its theaters, offers a slightly oilier, saltier popcorn. This chocolate-crave-inducing quality made us want Raisinettes, which the theaters didn't sell. They kept trying to convince us to buy those scary Snickers pebbles. Garland had a good middle-of-the-road popcorn in terms of crunch and flavor, although it was also the saltiest.

Naturally, all that dry salty goodness makes us crave syrupy sweet liquid; so we moved on to sodas. First of all, if you didn't already know this: Movie theater soda is grotesquely overpriced. The size of most medium drinks in Spokane is 32 ounces; a large is 44. The lowest price we found for the large drink was at Garland; but even there, your $3.25 gets you only a 32-ounce large. With prices like that -- nearly twice what you'd have to pay if you purchased the drink from a grocery store -- the amount of ice used becomes significant. We all want cold beverages; but diluted, overpriced beverages? No thanks.

The winner, with the best ratio of soda to ice, was AMC (1050/160 - all liquid measurements are in milliliters). In descending order, the others were: Valley (1000/200), Garland (945/200), Newport (990/250), and NorthTown (890/300). So if we rated soda quality based on the level of dilution, with the least amount of ice melting in the soda being the best, AMC would win by a long shot.

But what about price? Garland wins, charging the least for their artificially sweetened liquid (sans ice), followed, in descending order, by AMC, Valley, Newport, and NorthTown.

Hot dogs were as diverse as everything else. The thing that we obtained from Newport looked more like a log wrapped in a piece of paper. It had been microwaved to order (never a promising sign), and weighed 132 grams. In contrast, the hot dogs we got from NorthTown and the Valley were both spinning on a rotisserie before we purchased them, and weighed in respectively at 127 and 149 grams. AMC pulled its hot dog out of someplace we couldn't see, encased in an individual plastic box. Its weight was 131 grams. Given the lack of dramatic variety in weight and appearance (with the exception of Newport's disaster, which we refused to touch), we had to taste the difference. NorthTown won, with the best-done hot dogs. A special nod has to be given to the Valley, however; they offered salsa at their condiment bar. (Garland doesn't sell hot dogs.)

In the end, we decided to give out several awards. The best service we received was undoubtedly at the Garland, where not only was everything explained to us, but the attendant even helped us figure out the best bargains. Plus, their quirkier, more personal approach to customers entertained us - and after all, that's part of why we pay money to go to the movies. The best price for the quality was found at AMC; we're willing to pay more for the popcorn, because frankly it's much better than anything else we found. But if we had to take one concessions stand with us to a desert island, it would be the one from NorthTown. They have an espresso stand. We didn't evaluate coffee, but walking in and smelling java mingling with popcorn put us in the mood to eat.

Publication date: 03/04/04

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