A master sommelier, coming soon to a theater near you?
The idea is part of the package from a luxury movie theater chain coming this fall to the United States. Australia's Gold Class Cinemas opens its first American location in the Chicago suburb of South Barrington next month. Gold Class hopes to woo Americans seeking "affordable luxury" with four-star hotel amenities that have made it a success in overseas markets. Part of the chain's two-year development plan included contracting master sommelier Damon Ornowski to oversee the company's U.S. wine and beverage lists and implement a service training program that rivals those of better restaurants.
"We're setting our standards high, comparable to any high-profile dining venue," said Ornowski. Wine lists will vary at each location, but South Barrington's nearly 50 by-the-bottle selections begin with Hanna Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley Slusser Road Vineyard for $33 and end with Château d'Yquem 2001 (100 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale), priced at $695. Ornowski will also offer 28 wines by the glass, ranging from $7 to $20.
A few movie theaters have offered wine and dinner service in the past decade. But according to Robert Kirby, chairman of parent company Village Roadshow Limited, Gold Class's integration of wine and food into the cinema experience is what sets it apart. Moviegoers enjoy bar and menu service from a personal server who responds to a call button on your seat. "You can dine in the lounge before the show, at your seat, or even stagger your service, and ask them to bring your appetizer [before the movie] and your main 20 minutes after the trailers," Kirby said.
Add to that online seat selection, a concierge instead of a box office, valet service included with the price of a ticket and an everything-but-the-fireplace feel in each theater's plush interior. Every pair of reclining leather seats shares a small table with a built-in wine chiller, and blankets and slippers are available for those who get chilly. No theater holds more than 40 seats.
For the wine list, Ornowski said he positioned high-profile producers such as Krug and Mondavi next to less famous standouts such as Burgundy's Denis Mortet and Austria's Höpler to create a list that is as comfortable as it is intriguing. "But really, a wine list is just a piece of paper," he said. "How you integrate it [with the meal and experience] is what's important."
Which is why servers will undergo an intense three-day training program that includes wine tasting, food and wine pairing and elements of basic wine service, guided by Ornowski. "I want guests to be able to say 'here's what I'm thinking, here's my price range, take me there' and have it happen," he said.
Like the wine list, the menu involved two years of research with Chicago-based Levy Restaurants, a restaurant operations management group. The goal was "upscale but theater friendly," said Kirby. "We knew that no one would want to try to eat a steak off their lap while watching a movie," said Ornowski. "Plus forks and knives on ceramic plates would be too noisy." Appetizers and small plate items include a Wagyu beef burger duo, duck tacos and Ahi tuna tartare crostini. Ornowski said his suggested wine pairings are available with each dish, and as an added bonus, "the theater's design ensures that servers never have to cross [in front of] you to serve another guest."
The 44,000-square-foot South Barrington location opens Oct. 3, followed by a second spot in the Seattle suburb of Redmond on Oct. 24. Kirby said additional sites are scheduled to debut in 2009 in 12 markets including Texas, Arizona, Nevada and California, with a total of 50 theaters planned over the next three to five years.
Economic trends may lead some to question the $35 ticket price. But Hollywood has just closed the curtain on one of its biggest summers in recent box-office history according to industry tracker Media by Numbers. And alcohol sales tend to be recession-proof. The question is whether families will opt for a cheaper night at the neighborhood theater or Netflix and a bottle of something from their home cellars.
"We're giving American consumers a luxury cinema experience unlike any they've had, and I'm confident there's still a market for that," said Kirby.
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