Despite the Price, Salt and Fat, Dubliners Love Their Cinema Popcorn

It’s date night for Cathy and Lenny, who have just bought their tickets at O’Connell Street’s Savoy Cinema on Sunday evening.

The teenagers’ jackets hang loose in the mild night air. Lenny is tall, with dark hair and oval glasses, Cathy a petite blonde.

They laugh when when told they make a cute couple, and practically finish each other’s sentences.

“It’s my favourite thing to do to be honest, go to the flicks every week like,” says Lenny.

“’Cause I drag you there,” Cathy replies.

“She’s mad for the movies, she is.”

But there’s trouble in movie-palace paradise, and it comes in a cardboard tub.

“I’ll buy a big fat large bucket of popcorn now just for myself,” says Lenny.

Cathy laughs, and Lenny’s hard-line stance immediately falls apart. “Well she can have a few …”

Cathy says she doesn’t have a big appetite, but Lenny practically inhales the stuff.

“You can’t go to the bleedin’ cinema without getting popcorn. It’s a waste,” he says.

He reckons he’ll pay about €5 or €6 for a large bucket of popcorn. Cathy reckons that’s too much to spend.

“No ’cause it’s the experience of it, d’ya know what I mean?” Lenny says. “Otherwise you could just sit in your gaff and watch the movie. You’re out, you’re spending money … it’s like, might as well go hard or go home, and get all the popcorn.”

Gooey, Salty Cinema Magic

“It’s the one thing that unites us all is popcorn,” says Sinead O’Neill, marketing manager with Odeon Cinemas. “How you like it divides us, but popcorn is synonymous with film.”

Odeon operates 11 theatres in Ireland, and orders popcorn by the tonne. “In Blanchardstown, our busiest cinema, the popcorn popper never stops,” she says. “Same in Coolock, because you need that supply coming all the time.”

“In some of our city cinemas, like Limerick and Waterford, people do tend to buy certain kinds of sweets to put on top of the popcorn, and some people even buy Tayto to put on top of it. People have very strong tastes for how they like their popcorn to be made.”

Seeing opportunity, Odeon decided to formalise the arrangement and offer a line of sweet and savoury popcorn toppings to up-sell with their popcorn.

For now, that’s Minstrels, Oreos, and pretzels. And O’Neill’s statistics on who buys what reveal the true Anglo-Irish cultural divide.

“In the UK we do tend to see a bit more of a skew towards pretzels, because in the UK it’s nearly all sweet popcorn,” O’Neill says. “In Ireland we have no sweet popcorn” and Minstrels “are the hands-down winner – of the popcorn toppers, 56 percent will choose to get Minstrels”.

“The only exception to that rule is Cavan, because it’s a border county. In Belfast, we have a mix, you’d have two popcorn heaters on the go all the time, a sweet one and a savoury one.”

Across Dublin, O’Neill says, tastes in cinema snacks are largely consistent, with more kids’ popcorn deals in the suburbs and more large combo deals in the city centre. The one big outlier is Coolock.

“Coolock is very unusual for a number of reasons. It’s probably our biggest retail cinema – but also the nachos, the melted cheese, it’s just ridiculously big there. They will go and they will come in before X-Factor and they’ll buy the nachos, the cheese, the jalapeño and the pop, and then they’ll go home and have it watching X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing.”

“Guests in Coolock would also ask for a little tub of the [nacho] cheese so they can dip their popcorn into it. We don’t get that, by the way, anywhere else so definitely Coolock is the unusual one,” O’Neill says.

The “M” Word

The one thing Odeon Cinemas wouldn’t discuss was money. It’s no secret that cinema popcorn, like a great many food items, is heavily marked up, and exposés on mark-up and price differentials have seen reboot after reboot in the media over the years.

A 2013 episode of RTÉ’s The Consumer Show reported that the markup for cinema popcorn was as high as 700 percent on the raw materials, which cost as little as €0.50 a bag, according to industry sources.

Last year, conducted a nationwide phone survey asking cinemas how much they charged for a bag, with prices ranging from €5.90 in one Dublin city multiplex to less than €2 in a rural cinema. It’s a touchy subject for people in the industry.

“Many people have done this over many many years, they attack the cinema popcorn,” said Paddy Macauley of the Irish Popcorn and Snack Food Company, which sells popcorn kernels and industry hardware.

“They attack the price of the cinema popcorn, and they don’t actually understand the industry in any way whatsoever, right? To be honest with you, there’s better things to write about,” he said. “I’m not going to entertain you any further.”

One argument for levying a high margin on popcorn and other snacks is that it keeps ticket prices down – at least, that was what US researchers concluded when they studied the raw data for concession sales and ticket prices at Spanish cinemas in 2008.

They found that high prices for popcorn and other concessions worked a lot like student discounts, extracting extra value from high-rollers, while allowing more price-conscious movie fans to buy their own ticket.

The Cost of Popcorn

Cinema popcorn portion sizes can be pretty massive.

The largest container on offer in Dublin’s Savoy Cinema on O’Connell Street has a volume of 4.026 litres – more than a gallon. It holds 195g of popcorn packed the way it’s served at the cinema, bulging.

Around the corner in the Parnell Street Tesco, a 100g bag of pre-packed Manhattan popcorn is for sale at €1.85 – it takes two of those to fill the large container with a little spare. Total cost: €3.70. Saving: €1.30. But for sheer thrift, nothing beats homemade.

The Parnell Street Tesco also sells a 500g pack of Kelkin popcorn kernels for €1.85. It took two full pans of popcorn to fill the big carton. That meant a quarter of the pack of Kelkin kernels, 50ml of sunflower oil, and two teaspoons of salt each time. Total cost of materials: €1.02.

(That excludes the cost of labour, of course – if you valued your labour costs based on the minimum wage, your small-batch homemade popcorn would actually cost more than the shop-bought packs.)

The experiment makes a conservative estimate, because we bought the ingredients in a supermarket – but if we were selling the resulting popcorn at cinema prices, we could charge at least five times what it cost to produce, excluding the cost of labour and buying and operating the machinery.

That means the 700 percent markup claim made by RTÉ in 2013, based on industry estimates of cinemas’ ingredient costs, seems fairly realistic.

Taste Test

Having made such a large quantity of popcorn for the size comparisons, I then faced the problem of where to put it. None of the lunchboxes in the house were big enough to hold the contents of the large container, so I ended up using some plastic tubs from Ikea.

Looking at it, I wondered what it would do to me if I ate it all. Using the nutritional information on Manhattan’s 100g bag as a guide, a full large container contains 856 calories – over a third of a man’s recommended calorie daily intake and nearly half of a woman’s.

If you ate the whole container, you’d have taken in 4.36g of salt, more than the guideline amount is 4g per day. Nearly 26g of saturated fat would put you close to your daily limit too. On the plus side, popcorn is a great source of fibre, with 32g in the large portion making up the recommended amount, and about as much protein as your average whey bar.

Of course, nobody’s making people buy the larger sizes of popcorn – but cinemas operate a “super-size me” pricing structure, a dynamic flagged by the Consumer Association of Ireland as far back as 2011. “The ways ‘small’ portions are priced usually make the larger portions more appealing in terms of price,” researcher Sinéad McMahon wrote.

“Consumers can trade up from a small or medium size to a large portion for very little but in doing so can potentially double the calories consumed. This makes it easy to overeat at the cinema and we would prefer to see small portions starting at a more reasonable cost.”

The Showdown

It seemed a pity to waste the vast quantity of popcorn I amassed during my research, so I lined up a blind taste test.

I recruited four willing volunteers – everyone in the house at the time – and presented them with numbered samples of cinema popcorn, Manhattan popcorn, and the homemade batch in ceramic bowls for a side-by-side comparison.

Testing began about 90 minutes after the cinema sample had been bought, just enough time to transport it to the test site by bus, and for the homemade sample to be prepared and left to cool. The Manhattan popcorn was placed in the tasting bowl directly from its bag.

All four tasters noted the cinema sample was particularly salty, with three describing a “buttery” flavour and two saying they thought it was chewy. One described it as “a bit rancid” and another said that the popcorn was “unremarkable” with a “lingering aftertaste”. One tester selected it as their favourite.

The Manhattan sample was called “lighter”, “crunchier”, and “very white” and as having “a nice twist when you chew it (maybe butter?)” and a “slight burnt tang”. Again, only one tester said it was their favourite.

The DIY popcorn was described by three tasters as “oily” and by the fourth as “salty with a bit of sweet” and “crunchier” than the other samples. One taster described it as “bland” with a “nutty flavour”. Two said it was their favourite.

It would be a stretch to call this a victory for the homemade popcorn given the small sample size, but the saltiness of the cinema sample is worth noting.

After cooking the home-brew stuff, there was a layer of salt left over at the bottom of the pan. The commercial popcorn seasoning Flavacol uses a much finer grade of salt than standard table salt, and may stick to the popped kernels better.

Back at the Savoy

Back at the Savoy, Lenny grabs his tummy.

“I let go of myself a while ago … getting there, it is.”

Is that just from the popcorn?

“Nah, from the popcorn and the drinking.”

“From the beer,” says Cathy.

Even still, the guys say they see the romance in it.

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Stephen Bourke: Stephen Bourke is a freelance journalist, but more importantly, a second-generation Dub on both sides of the family. @anburcach

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