Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
The sound of distant singing swells and recedes in the lobby of the August Wilson Theater during a recent Wednesday matinee of the Tony-nominated musical Groundhog Day. Theater manager Ryan Sparks points out the themed niceties awaiting the audience when the theater disgorges them for intermission. The clusters of colorful alarm clocks arrayed across the orchestra bar. Blocks of timber evoking the show's wintry set. Groundhog-shaped cookies.
The drink menu, in a Plexiglas frame mounted on a light box, echoes the image on the poster outside the theater. On offer are three "Punxsutawney Punches" including "The Weatherman" (a riff on a Dark and Stormy) and "Rise and Shine (Again)," with breakfast gin and Earl Grey tea.
"The more eye-catching it is, the more we can draw people to it," says Sparks of the tricked-out bar.
You'd be forgiven for thinking Sparks works for the August Wilson, where he manages not only snack sales and the bar but also coat check and headsets for the hearing impaired. His employer, in fact, is Sweet Hospitality Group, which for 30 years has provided concessions and other products and services for theaters around New York City. If you've purchased a sucker from the lollipop tree at Aladdin or bellied up to the Al Hirschfeld bar for a "Kinky Bubbles" cocktail, you're a Sweet Hospitality customer.
"A theater is thinking about the ushers and the show and getting people in and out of the bathrooms," says Julie Rose, Sweet Hospitality's founder and CEO. "All we think about is how to make more money and enhance the experience for the audience."
Sweet Hospitality's offices overlook the bustle and clamor of Broadway. From there, Rose's 130-plus employees, many of them part-timers who take off weeks or months to perform in touring shows or on cruise ships, fan out to 26 venues around the city, including the Jujamcyn Theaters, Lincoln Center Theater, and Disney's home, the New Amsterdam.
At every venue the enemy is the same: time. Employees typically have just half an hour before each show and 15 minutes during intermission to serve as many theatergoers as possible and to do so as charismatically as possible. "In concessions you have to be charming and inviting and hospitable. But at the same time you've got to be fast," says Rose. "If you turn around to get something, you've lost five sales."
You also must be a purveyor of hope. "To someone at the back of the line it looks very bleak," says Rose. "You move people quickly, but you also are talking to the back of the line. 'We are going to get to you! Don't panic!'"
Sweet Hospitality, which also does catering, has competitors. But it is widely considered the place where many theatrical hospitality traditions started, including the show-themed cocktail and the souvenir sippy cup.
The company has "been the leader of changing the face of concessions on Broadway," says Dana Amendola, vice president of operations for Disney Theatrical Group. Amendola says that when he first hired Sweet Hospitality, he charged the company with becoming part of the show. "Disney is about the whole experience from when you first walk in that door, and they completely embraced that," he says. "They exceed the guests' expectations."
Julie Rose made her world debut in Cincinnati. In high school she came down with the acting bug and enrolled in the Conservatory of Theatre Arts program at Webster University, in St. Louis. Her first--and last--job on a professional stage was operating the fog machine during a performance of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music for a rep company affiliated with Webster. The pressure was simply too great. "I just took it so seriously," says Rose. "It was so beautiful, and I was so scared of messing up and ruining it."
Rose changed her major to music and moved to San Francisco State University. On her 21st birthday, a friend took her to a production of A Chorus Line in San Jose, and her world shifted. "It was my favorite show. I knew every word," says Rose. "On my way home I said, 'I need to move to New York because I cannot see another second-rate road production. I need to see the original cast.'"
In 1980 Rose transferred again, this time to Brooklyn College, graduating with a degree in music education. A teaching career loomed but did not appeal.
Her boyfriend at the time was head of the kitchen at Culinary Connection, a catering business that serviced film and television shoots. Soon Rose was tootling around New York by car, delivering food to sets. It was great experience, since by that time she'd set her sights on becoming a producer. She was also eager to drum up business for her employer, which was losing to a competitor.
Rose wanted to find out why Culinary Connection was No. 2. That meant infiltrating a set serviced by the rival. She chose Legal Eagles, a Robert Redford-Debra Winger flick shooting in a loft near her home. "I said I was a producer interested in hiring the company" and wanted to check them out, says Rose. The other company's food, she observed, was nothing special. But the service was. "Real white tablecloths," she says. "Real flowers. Real silver urns." That vision of perfect service became her personal benchmark.
How to Succeed in Business With(out) Really Trying
In 1986, the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center reopened after years of renovation. Knowing Rose worked in food service, a friend of a friend approached her about providing concessions. Rose relayed the proposal to Culinary Connection, which declined. Rose didn't consider pursuing the opportunity on her own.
Then she read in The New Yorker that a new David Mamet play, Prairie du Chien, would be among the Newhouse's first shows. "David Mamet was a huge deal in the theater world," says Rose. "I said, 'Maybe I will check this out.'"
Rose presented the Newhouse management with a one-page proposal promising to pay the theater a percentage of profits--a substantial sum, by her calculations--in exchange for the concession service. "They said, 'Fine. You are hired. We have candy and soda from seven years ago in the basement,'" says Rose. Instead, she went home and started baking.
In addition to buying ingredients and Soho Sodas ("very hip and artisanal at the time"), Rose spent her last $500 on silk flowers, fancy bowls and trays, and other housewares. It had the desired effect. "Don Rickles once walked into our bar and said, 'Oh my God, it looks like a buffet at a bar mitzvah!'" says Rose.
Profits, however, were not forthcoming. Rose returned to the Newhouse's general manager. "I told him, 'I can't give you any money,'" she says. "He said, 'I know.' I said, 'If you knew I couldn't pay, why didn't you say something?' He said, 'I thought you would figure it out yourself.'" The manager allowed Rose to operate her business for free until she started turning a profit about a year later.
Within a year Rose had taken over concessions for the Vivian Beaumont, also at Lincoln Center, and begun reaching out to other theaters. At large venues she maintained the business model she'd worked out at the Newhouse, paying the theater a percentage of profits. Later she would develop an alternative model for smaller venues: charging a management fee to compensate for the lower take.
The business also switched from making its own food to selling commercial products. Peanut M&M's, to this day, are the company's biggest seller.
The '90s were a good time for the industry. Key to the redevelopment of Times Square was the renovation or reconstruction of historic theaters. The moment Rose heard Disney would take over the New Amsterdam, she started pitching. She won the contract three years later. Sweet Hospitality was onsite in 1997 when that theater premiered a little show called The Lion King.
At the time Rose employed a general manager who was mad for all things Disney. "He kept saying to me, 'We should do a sippy cup. They are very popular at the theme parks,'" says Rose. She had some made: plastic, embossed with art from the musical. They were a hit with audiences, and soon Sweet Hospitality was making cups for most shows.
By 1999, Rose was looking for new revenue generators. She asked staff for ideas, and within a week the manager at the Vivian Beaumont had devised 20 specialty cocktails themed to the Susan Stroman dance musical Contact, which had just opened there. He also decorated the bar and created signage that reflected the musical's motifs. Sales soared.
But clever products are only part of the company's competitive advantage, says Al Stotzer, Sweet Hospitality's COO. The rest is its typically young, theater-obsessed staff. "The majority of our people are actors or musicians or writers," says Stotzer. And while they are trained in sales and customer service, "it may just be easier for theater people to display positive emotions. They are naturally outgoing."
Rose hopes to leverage Sweet Hospitality's expertise in creating show-specific experiences to reach theaters in other cities: offering drink recipes and decoration ideas, as well as online staff training. Such customers might also sell Sweet Hospitality's chocolate bars and snacks, which the company produces under the Intermission brand.
Rose also wants to offer current customers something more substantial than Twizzlers and chips. It's a challenge because many theatergoers include pre- or post-show restaurant meals in their plans. A recent experiment with sandwiches has not produced standing ovations. Still, Rose is convinced that the perfect theater food is out there. "When I say 'popcorn,' where do you think of eating it? The movies," she says. "When I say 'hot dog' you think of a ball game. What food is commensurate with theater? I have not figured it out yet."
Beyond food and service innovations, Sweet Hospitality stands to benefit from an industry trend. Increasingly New York City theaters are expanding the number of stalls in their restrooms. Given that roughly 67 percent of Broadway theatergoers are women, for whom lines are notoriously long, this could free up more time to buy food and drinks at intermission.
"The faster people can get to the bathroom, the more likely they are to do both things," says Rose. "But here's a tip: Even when you hear the one-minute bell, you still have time to get your drink."