Living La Vida Locavore
Sweets and savories from down the block attract new theatregoers
By Eliza Bent
To liven up stale concessions and entice new ticket-buyers.
Partner with local food organizations and create zany food-driven promotions.
Increased visibility; larger social media reach; higher concession income.
Promotions are either DIY or expensive; last-minute planning can induce stress.
Build on previous publicity; cook up fresh ideas for future shows.
Playwright William Burke once quipped, "People in California don't have to brag about going to the farmer's market the way they do in New York." It's true. New Yorkers have a tendency to boast about the provenance of their meats, the varietals of their vegetables and Community Supported Agriculture memberships in a way that's unnecessary in California, where sunshine, debt and fresh produce abound. It makes sense that the Slow Food movement gained traction in Berkeley, Calif.—home of Alice Waters's Chez Panisse, where "fresh," "local," "organic" and "seasonal" became the go-to words to describe delicious and good-for-you food. But as the Slow Food philosophy has spread throughout the country, why are so many theatres still selling candy bars and soft drinks?
Some New York City theatres have struck up partnerships with neighborhood eateries. New York Theatre Workshop, for example, has joined with FAB Café on the same block of Manhattan's East 4th Street. Classic Stage Company partners with Everyman Espresso on a nearby corner. St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn sells such savories as tamales and edamame hummus from RICE, a restaurant down the street. But what about in Los Angeles, the city that doesn't walk, where motor vehicles reign, and some of the best eats are found on trucks?
"I've been known to drive significant distances out of my way for food trucks," jokes Allison Rawlings, director of communications at L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse and a self-proclaimed foodie. The Geffen's recent production of Tracy Letts's Superior Donuts presented a perfect opportunity for a mouth-watering promotion. "How many plays have 'donuts' in the title?" asks Rawlings rhetorically. Shockingly, even among the city's approximately 200 four-wheeled snack stops, they couldn't find a food truck devoted to doughnuts. "I guess I now have a retirement food-truck plan," Rawlings dryly observes. Eventually, she came across the Buttermilk food truck, which serves breakfast day and night and offers a cake-like, cinnamon-sugar doughnut.
Rawlings made a proposal to Buttermilk's proprietress Gigi Pascual, asking to wrap the truck in Superior Donuts advertisements and to hand out discount cards for the play with all food served—doughnuts or otherwise. "Their doughnut would be renamed the 'Superior Donut' for the week of promotion, which coincided with our previews in May, and Buttermilk would retain its regular route," explains Rawlings.
But divine doughnut providence intervened. "We realized it was going to be National Donut Day the final night of previews," says Rawlings. "So we had to act fast." (National Donut Day—for those who don't know—has fallen on the first Friday in June since 1938, when it was started to honor women who served soldiers doughnuts in World War I.)
The Geffen's graphic designer whipped up a discount code logo and Rawlings set to work researching truck decals. Professional decals carried a hefty price of $5,000, so Rawlings opted for low-tack decals that she and Pascual pasted onto Buttermilk's truck bright and early on Memorial Day morning. "We were operating a little ad hoc," admits Rawlings, recalling the race to research and get the word out. Still, the total cost of the promotion was only $700, which included the discount cards and the decals.
Certainly the results were palatable—but were they palpable? "Absolutely," says Rawlings, who points to a number of food blogs that buzzed with the Superior Donuts promotion at the start of the week—Grub Street, Eater LA, Los Angeles Magazine's food blog and LA Observed among them. On the last day of the promotion, National Donut Day, the cast of Superior Donuts helped serve the treats outside the Geffen.
The icing on the doughnut came via social media. The Geffen promised to promote Buttermilk through its social media and vice versa. Buttermilk has a whopping 18,000-plus followers on Twitter compared to the Geffen's far more fledgling account. "It was a great lesson in how a partnership can grow your Twitter following," declares Rawlings, pointing out that Geffen's Twitter followers were fewer than 100 at the start of the promotion but now tally more than 500. (The Geffen's Facebook following, on the other hand, hovers at respectable 3,500.) "It was great to build awareness that we even have a Twitter feed," adds Rawlings, noting that while many Geffen subscribers may not be on Twitter, many single-ticket buyers are.
While the promotion may not have resulted in a direct uptick in ticket sales, Rawlings believes the Buttermilk promotion raised the Geffen's visibility. "We're always trying to challenge ourselves to infiltrate people's lives in unexpected ways. Food-truck customers might not know about our theatre through the traditional marketing we do. Perhaps they get the discount code and don't come to see Superior Donuts. But now they know we exist. By the third or fourth time they hear about one of our shows, they put their money where their mouth is and actually buy a ticket." Mmm, delicious.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, like its brethren in New York City, partners with local food and beverage purveyors such as Love at First Bite, Cheese Works West and Semifreddi's—but it has gone a step further with free tastings and specialty cocktails. "For Mike Daisey's The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, we had an appletini; for Lynn Nottage's Ruined we ordered Fanta; and when Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters took on Chekhov we served up Black Russians, White Russians and vodka shots," says Terence Keane, Berkeley Rep's director of public relations.
Free pre-show snack and cocktail tastings, which have been ongoing for two years, have had some bonus effects. According to Robert Sweibel, Berkeley Rep's director of marketing and communications, patrons come to the theatre earlier, which relieves parking issues and ensures a punctual start to performances. "Another unexpected outcome," says Sweibel, "has been increased sales at our café counter." Free tastings typically finish about 20 minutes before the curtain, so freshly arrived patrons see others with snacks and drinks in hand and head to the concession counter for a cupcake, cheese plate or coffee. About 150 people attend each weekend tasting, which adds up to a yearly total of 15,000. In Berkeley Rep's 2005–06 season, patrons spent an average of $1.15 per person on concessions, but that figure is now up to $1.71. "We had $95,000 in surplus revenue last year," avows Sweibel.
Keane highlights the locally based artisanal quality of the snacks and beverages. They serve as a reminder, he maintains, "that the theatre is created by skilled local artisans, too. Everyone knows that the shows at Berkeley Rep are fresh and delicious—shouldn't the café be as well?" Sweibel adds, "A full tummy is a happy tummy, and this way—whether ticket buyers love the show or feel challenged by it—they are likely to leave saying they've had an overall positive experience."
Just how applicable are these fresh and local lessons to other communities is hard to say. But I, for one, wouldn't mind a pre-show clam chowder in Boston, a talk-back steak in Omaha, an intermission hot-dog in Chi-town or a SoCo-and-lime at a showing of A Streetcar Named Desire. And for matinees that fall during prime brunch time? Doughnuts, of course.blog comments powered by Disqus
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