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NOT JUST CORN POPPIN' CREATORS ROLL OUT NEW TREATS FOR THEATER OWNERS AND FANS.

Byline: Greg Hernandez Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS - The sweet smell of cinnamon-glazed mixed nuts was wafting through the air inside a convention hall at Bally's hotel.

``We're cooking these right here because people come right up to us,'' David Brent, president of The Nutty Bavarian, said as stirred batches of nuts inside a hot pan. ``But it's a big challenge to get people to try something new.''

Brent was one of the dozens of concessionaires who showed up at last week's ShoWest convention to make an aggressive attempt to break into the lucrative theater concession business that represents 40 percent of profit for theater owners.

But moviegoers have been set in their ways for decades, with most of them content to load up on popcorn, sodas and candy and maybe a hot dog or some nachos. These entrenched habits are the biggest challenge for Brent and others as they try to persuade theater owners to add something new to their menu.

``Everyone is always looking to add new products that are going to add to the sales of the core items,'' Susan M. Cross, director of communications for the National Association of Concessionaires said Wednesday. ``They will try different things, and if it sells, it stays. If it doesn't, it's gone. It's the public that makes the decision.''

Brent, a former rocket scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, bought The Nutty Bavarian from a friend four years ago in a dramatic career change. He is now firmly established in sports stadiums and malls, and he thinks he has found a recipe for successfully getting his products into theaters as well.

``You have to get your current customers to talk to other theater owners,'' he said. ``It's really by word of mouth.''

Rufus Davis III, owner of two multiplexes in Dotham, Ala., is one of these new customers who had just agreed to begin carrying the products this summer.

``People get tired of just eating popcorn and want to try something different,'' Davis said. ``Nuts are real, real popular.''

Many of the concessionaires have already established themselves at either theme parks or malls, where consumers aren't so set on the buttered-popcorn ritual.

Take Pucker Powder, for example, a Birmingham, Ala., company that sells an item that a spokesman describes as ``pixie stick meets sand art.'' Patrons fill tubes themselves from 16 flavors, such as sour watermelon, sour green apple, root beer or sweet strawberry.

The Pucker Powder flavor machines are already popular at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and at Knott's Berry Farm in Southern California. Co-owner Bruce Goldstein said he had signed up six new theater owners at ShoWest and hoped to grab even more new business before the convention wrapped last Thursday night.

``I want to branch out because theaters are just a natural for us,'' Goldstein said. ``Kids are there every weekend and all summer long.''

Brian Taylor, the 25-year-old president of Kernel Seasons, has been coming to ShoWest for four years and now has more than 700 multiplexes carrying his gourmet popcorn seasonings, which include such flavors as white cheddar, nacho cheddar, apple-cinnamon, ranch, jalapeno, parmesan and garlic.

``It was a new concept at first so it was a dual challenge to get theaters to test it and to get moviegoers to try it,'' said Taylor, who founded the Chicago-based company while he was still in college.

A few aisles over, Dippin' Dots ice cream, based in Paducah, Ky., has been to ShoWest the past six years. But it was more of an attraction on the convention floor this year after the BB-size ice cream beads were featured on a recent segment of ``Oprah.''

``You spoon them out of the package,'' explained Tammy Wilson, sales director for the company. ``We have a popular base in amusement parks, but theaters are becoming more receptive now.''

But the concession stalwarts aren't turning a blind eye to these new players. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, established popcorn companies and the manufacturers of Goobers, Raisinets and Red Vines made their presence known at ShoWest with large displays and free samples.

Garey Logan was giving passers-by sample-size boxes of Mike & Ike and Hot Tamales, popular candies made by Just Born in Bethlehem, Pa. He was also touting a new item called Zours.

``Hot Tamales and Mike & Ike are the No. 1 and No. 2 boxed theater item,'' said Logan, the company's Western regional manager. ``The thing about this business is that people can get Hershey and Mars bars and a lot of other candy every day, but our business was built through the movie theaters so people are looking for us there.''

Greg Hernandez, (818) 713-3758

greg.hernandez(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) A Pucker Powder dispenser lets consumers choose from 16 flavors and colors of candy to fill tubes themselves with creations that look like edible sand art.

(3 -- 4 -- color) no caption (Candy)

Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Words:823
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