When watching the latest blockbuster on the big screen, most of us are more than happy to gorge on popcorn, soda and nachos. But as it turns out, not everyone is keen on the classics. Apparently, people from Texas often chow down on a completely different treat after they’ve taken their seats. And the very notion of bringing this strange snack to the movies has left other Americans completely confounded.
Nowadays, snacking while watching a film is totally commonplace. And for many Americans, this means that a trip to the concession stand is an integral part of the cinematic experience. In fact, a 2018 poll by SurveyMe found that almost half of all people questioned claimed to go to the stand during every trip to the movie theater.
Yet concessions haven’t always been a thing. In fact, in the earliest days of movie theaters, no food or drinks were sold at all. Instead, customers simply brought their own snacks. And on occasion, treats could be purchased from freelance merchants, who were given the go-ahead to enter auditoriums in order to peddle their tasty wares.
However, starting from the 1920s, the five-cent theaters – or “nickelodeons” – that had emerged in the early 20th century were phased out in favor of more upmarket joints. And perhaps in a bid to maintain this highbrow ambiance, these new movie theaters often banned food altogether. Most significantly, they didn’t allow patrons to bring in popcorn – which, of course, is now a film-going mainstay.
You see, these enterprises were attempting to emulate the theaters where plays were performed – complete with similarly high-end furnishings. And as a consequence, owners didn’t want dropped popcorn spoiling their lavish carpeting. Selling food would also create potentially off-putting piles of trash – and that’s not even to mention the unwanted sound of movie-watchers chomping on their snacks. Away from these businesses, however, popcorn sales were on the up-and-up.
Popcorn had many advantages for savvy salespeople, too. It was easily produced, for instance, with no need for a full kitchen. And when the steam-powered popcorn maker was introduced in 1885, samples of the snack could be easily taken from venue to venue. Those two factors – combined with popcorn’s irresistible smell – were a boon for street sellers in the early decades of the 1900s.
In fact, many popcorn vendors actually plied their trade directly outside movie theaters. Yet even as patrons demonstrated their penchant for the food, a handful of businesses still resisted the onslaught; some even asked customers to leave their bags of popcorn in the cloakroom. Then, at the end of the 1920s, the Great Depression arrived – and venues finally began to acknowledge moviegoers’ desires.
It’s perhaps no wonder that the movie theaters eventually capitulated, though, as popcorn was quite the money-spinner. Indeed, a single $10 bag of kernels could keep a concession stand going for years. Popcorn’s low price also made it an acceptable indulgence in cash-strapped times. And when the so-called “talkies” displaced silent movies, more patrons could experience the wonder of cinema – and snap up some corn while they were at it.
Soon, then, movie theaters and popcorn became natural bedfellows. And it didn’t take long, either, for business owners to understand just how vital concession stands were to their livelihoods. You see, one chain in Dallas held off installing popcorn machines at five of its premises, as those locations were deemed to be the ritziest of the bunch. Unsurprisingly, though, those five theaters ultimately failed while other outlets thrived.
By the tail-end of WWII, then, more than 50 percent of America’s popcorn consumption took place at the movies. But that wasn’t the only option film fans had on offer in the years to come, as the roster of concession-stand candy went on to expand immensely. In the post-conflict period, you could find Junior Mints, Raisinets, Milk Duds and M&Ms at movie theaters across the U.S.
However, yet more sweet treats would arrive on the scene. Come the 1970s, Sour Patch Kids appeared, capitalizing on the sudden influx of UFO sightings. Initially, though, the candy was billed as “Mars Men,” and it only received its current name – which may have been influenced by the Cabbage Patch Kids – in the ’80s.
And, of course, things have now moved far beyond simple popcorn and chocolate-covered confectionery. Today, there’s enough food behind concession stands – from hot dogs and ice cream to nachos and pizza – to satisfy even the pickiest patrons. Perhaps in a nod to the upmarket ethos of 1920s movie theaters, some chains even serve up alcohol and coffee.
What’s more, a handful of outlets have expanded into what’s practically restaurant territory by offering full meals alongside movie tickets. In 2013 Hamid Hashemi, the CEO of upscale iPic Theaters, told Smithsonian, “Think about going to a live Broadway show. Our movie theaters provide that kind of experience.”
And just as movie theaters were forced to concede to concession stands in the 1930s, so too are modern chains obliged to continually diversify their menus. Yet while some in the business have embraced the drive towards healthy eating, they haven’t always done so at the expense of traditional tastes. Indeed, in 2018 Alamo Drafthouse’s food and beverage vice president Jeff Mann told Vox that people “still like to indulge when they go out, so we offer comfort food.”
Yet it’s arguably independent theaters that are really at the forefront of movie food innovation. Missouri’s Ragtag Cinema, for example, is situated right next to Upside Bakery, which offers a variety of tasty delicacies. And customers are welcome to eat either in Upside or in the main auditorium, which is decked out with comfortable couches.
Occasionally, movie theater menus are even tied into specific releases. To accompany his 2017 movie The Big Sick, for instance, actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani assisted Alamo in coming up with a suitable list of Pakistani dishes. Mann told Vox, “It’s not a movie specifically about food or cooking, but with the Pakistani culture and family meals playing such a large role in the film, it felt like a way to really enhance the film experience.”
But despite the diverse range of dining experiences now available to moviegoers, popcorn will likely always have a place at concession stands. After all, the popular snack is incredibly cheap to sell, making it a savvy financial choice in the face of declining ticket sales. It’s thought, in fact, that movie theaters make around 85 percent profit on concessions, with food and drink accounting for nearly half of the overall bottom line.
Popcorn’s enduring appeal is reflected by the numbers, too. According to SurveyMe’s 2018 poll, the food is the most common cinematic concession choice in the U.S. That’s particularly true for moviegoers aged above 51, with a whopping nine in ten visiting the concession stand – most regularly for popcorn.
What’s more, popcorn is typically a gateway to extra buys. For example, of the over-51 crowd, a sizeable 82 percent of popcorn purchasers also indulge in soda. Two in ten of the people surveyed who pick up popcorn, meanwhile, will supplement it with candy. And for movie theater managers, figuring out the favored popcorn-candy combos of their customers can help bring in the big bucks.
When it comes to millennials, though, the stats become a little more disheartening for those in charge. You see, the SurveyMe study found that many younger people bypass concessions offerings in favor of taking their own treats. And those millennials who are open to movie-theater purchases are apparently more likely to buy foods such as fries and pizza – basically, items that are harder to get into an auditorium unnoticed.
It’s little surprise, then, that theaters are trying to diversify the cuisine they have on offer. And as you may know if you’ve ever taken in a flick while on vacation, movie-watching snacks vary all over the world. In Japan, for instance, patrons often feast on “iwashi senbei,” or sardine rice crackers.
Russian audiences who upgrade to VIP tickets, meanwhile, can enjoy luxurious beluga caviar while taking in the latest blockbuster. And if you travel to a particular Norwegian drive-in theater, you may even find yourself tucking into a plate of dried reindeer meat. But not all countries break the mold when it comes to movie dining. U.K. film fans also love popcorn, albeit with sugar instead of – or sometimes in addition to – salt.
And it’s not just in different countries that you’ll find discrepancies in palates. You see, people all across the U.S. also have distinct choices in movie snacks – at least, according to a map that went viral in October 2019. Originally published by the folks behind the Lights, Camera, Barstool podcast, the guide – which has been organized by state – purports to display Americans’ preferred choices of foods when watching films on the big screen.
The information used to create that map, moreover, supposedly came from data provided by Target, Walmart and social media. And it didn’t take long, either, for the podcast’s initial tweet to circulate the web, where it ultimately gathered thousands of likes and retweets. As the map’s reach grew, however, it inspired intense debate from moviegoers across the country – many of whom had strong opinions on the matter.
In addition, the map claims that while people in many states apparently prefer perfectly standard snacks such as Reese’s Pieces or M&M’s, others are seemingly a little less traditional. For instance, the guide alleges that Wisconsin moviegoers’ favorite nibble is Kraft cheese slices. And even more incredulously, it claims that North Dakotans take baked beans into auditoriums.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many took umbrage with the map when it was first tweeted. One Twitter user commented, for example, “Was this survey taken like 20 years ago? No respect for the real ones out there… Butterfinger Bites, Crunch Bar, Sour Patch Kids… SMH.” And another individual from Wisconsin vehemently disagreed with their state’s supposed choice of snack, writing, “No, it’s not, we’re not eating cheese slices at the movies. I don’t believe it.”
Nevertheless, some people received the map and its findings a little more kindly. One Redditor voiced their approval by writing, “Milk Duds is definitely tops in Indiana. Source: Am from Indiana.” And in what seemed to be a sly dig at Florida, another person on social media tweeted out a cropped version of the image that singled out the Sunshine State and its apparent love of Dum Dums. That individual wryly captioned their post, “Makes sense.”
Meanwhile, Texans’ favorite movie candy is supposedly black licorice – although this claim was vehemently denied by Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s Twitter account. The airport’s social media team responded to the podcast in October 2019, writing, “This map is less than accurate, to say the least. We are above licorice, and yes this is a sentient airport speaking on behalf of the entire state of Texas.” Regardless of the veracity of the map, though, there is one rather strange food that Texans are particularly partial to while sitting down and taking in a good film.
Yes, apparently the real choice of movie theater snack in Texas is… pickles. You’ll even find the fermented fruit available at concession stands across the state. And rather than being served as an accompaniment to another item, it’s often sold solo. One theater, for instance, has had individual pickles on offer for $2.75.
Another Twitter user has revealed that their choice of venue sold a pickle in a bag for $2.50. They’re listed on the menu alongside hot dogs and nachos as if they’re a totally normal snack to enjoy during a movie. And the concession stand cashiers apparently even offer to drain the juice from the container, meaning you can fully customize your pickle experience.
Of course, you don’t necessarily have to eat the pickle by itself – even if it’s offered that way. Some Texans choose to combine their brined cucumbers with a bucket of popcorn, for example. But while that’s typically achieved by simply throwing the pickle straight in among the kernels, one person on social media offered an altogether stranger suggestion. “Hollow out the pickle, put the popcorn inside,” they wrote in 2018.
Furthermore, while pickles at movie theaters may seem strange to non-Americans, the odd delicacy is also blowing the minds of Texans’ fellow countrymen and women. In the Reddit community AskAnAmerican, a user who hailed from Texas posted in 2019, “Do other states really not serve pickles at movie theaters?” And to that, a Redditor from Massachusetts responded, “No, cause we’re not all freaking weirdos.”
A Pennsylvanian confirmed that the novelty hadn’t yet extended to their state, either. “I’ve seen single-serve pickles in convenience stores but not in the movie theater,” they wrote. “I’m torn between ‘awesome because I like pickles’ and ‘someone’s going to be crunching on these through the whole movie.’”
When Texans venture out of their home state, meanwhile, they’re often equally bewildered by the lack of pickles available in other movie theaters. In July 2019 one Texas native tweeted that after he had relocated to Washington, he had tried to order a pickle at concessions. In response to that request, though, the staff had apparently “looked at [him] like [he] was an alien from a distant land.”
Similarly, another social media user tweeted in 2018, “I recently went to a movie theater in Ohio and was in shock that they didn’t sell any [pickles]. I’ve lived in Texas all my life and assumed this was a thing everywhere. I’m moving to Ohio soon, so I guess I’ll have to bring my own pickles.”
That said, not everyone in Texas is keenly familiar with movie theater pickles. For example, one born-and-bred Texan claimed in a tweet that, even though she’d been living in the state for a quarter of a century, she’d never once seen pickles at a concession stand. And in response to a 2015 BuzzFeed article on the phenomenon, a commenter from Houston added, “Yes, a lot of our movie theaters sell pickles. However, I can assure you it is not a normal thing to get ‘pickles and a movie.’”
Nonetheless, it appears that pickles are now beginning to make their way out of Texas and into other states. For instance, when an upmarket new movie theater opened its doors in New Jersey in November 2019, it had fried pickles on the menu. A Redditor also reported in 2019 that pickles are apparently commonplace at concession stands across Louisiana.
Plus, news of pickles’ seeming expansion across America could be music to the ears of the over-51 demographic. After all, according to SurveyMe’s 2018 poll, around 16 percent of the people questioned who fall into that age bracket would like to see more fruits and vegetables available at movie theaters. And while they may seem an unusual choice, pickles would fulfill that desire.
However, the most common suggestion for new concession stand options was French fries. According to the questionnaire’s results, more than 20 percent of millennials prioritized the savory snack, placing it ahead of ice cream and pizza. Nearly a third of overall respondents, meanwhile, said they’d like to buy hot beverages such as tea and coffee at movie theaters.
But one menu item that didn’t turn up on the survey was – you guessed it – pickles. And considering how confounded most Americans outside Texas seem to be about the concession stand snack, it’s really no wonder. If you ever do find yourself at a movie theater in the southern state, though, don’t be surprised to find your fellow filmgoers chowing down on the crunchy green fruit.