With cinema attendance plateauing or stagnant in most developed markets, exhibitors are turning to ways to extract more money from the patrons that still frequent cinemas. Concessions is the most obvious way, which is why the last decade has seen a proliferation of in-theatre cafes, bars, stand-alone ice-cream counters, gourmet food and cinema-dining.
While price is still the major complaint for most cinema goers, with sugar, trans-fats and GMO issues only starting to bubble up, should cinema goers in fact be more concerned with food safety? The recent reporting of cockroaches in a Cineworld near Manchester led to questions about food safety practices in major UK cinemas.
To get to the bottom of the issue, Celluloid Junkie filed a Freedom of Information (FoI) request with London’s Westminster Council for all documents relating to food safety issues in central London cinemas for the past four years. The findings were reassuringly positive with overall high standard. However, not all exhibitors scored equally highly and historically there have been lows. Our findings might still surprise you.
Scores on the Doors
The details about the food hygiene standards that we received from Westminster Council are neither a secret nor should they come as a surprise. With Westminster depending on tourists and Londoners spending billions of pounds (yes, billions) each year in the shops, bars, restaurants, theatres (plays and musicals) and cinemas, the council has a particularly high interest in ensuring that strict standards are being observed.
This is not to say that other councils might be more lax, but that Westminster is unique in the the whole of the UK in terms of acting as a magnet for bar, club, restaurant, cinema and theatre goers.
Westminster cinemas also have the UK’s highest ticket prices (Leicester Square ones in particular), but are also the ‘red carpet’ cinemas, so they occupy a special position in the UK cinema pantheon.
As such Westminster Council was an obvious participant in the Scores on the Doors scheme, whereby its 1-5 ratings is posted on a certificate to be displayed prominently, as well as on the website. Unlike the Westminster Council documents released to us, however, it does not a provide a detailed breakdown and only covers the most recent inspection.
A Few Caveat To Begin With
There are several things to be noted before we analyse the figures and findings. First of all, this is not a survey of all the cinemas in London but only those in Westminster Council in the centre of London. Health & Safety is a Council matter in the UK and while UK cities like Leeds or Glasgow have councils that more or less cover the whole city, London is split into many boroughs and councils. Westminster is the most central and with the highest cinema density in London, including the famous Leicester Square in the West End.
This means not all London cinemas are included and there is a slight imbalance in the exhibitors represented. Odeon has no less than four cinemas included, but Vue only one as the two Westfield Vues and also the O2 lie in other boroughs. Westminster does not even include all of central London cinemas, with Odeon Covent Garden just one block away from Curzon Soho, but in the Borough of Camden. It would not have been practical to get information from all London councils as there are 32 boroughs in the Greater London area, plus the self-governing City of London, which houses the Barbican cinema.
Secondly, it should be noted that the survey were conducted at different times and are not an annually recurring event. Inspections which result in a low score or major recommendations usually see a follow up, but a cinema that scores well is usually not re-visited for a few years. We have thus taken the last four years into consideration, averaging scores but also recognising the most recent scores as the most relevant in practical terms.
Top of the Class: Prince Charles and Apollo
The highest score of any cinemas in Westminster was given to the Prince Charles Cinema and the former Apollo Haymarket, who both got five out of five in 2012.
The former might be a surprise but is a testament to a well run small independent cinemas. Situated on a narrow pedestrian street behind Leicester Square, the Prince Charles Cinema specialises in showing older film at a discount price, as well as specials like Rocky Horror Show or Sing-along Sound of Music and festivals and themed screenings. Comments that were made were of a minor nature, such as bag of popcorn stored on the floor of the storeroom, which is a no-no for any food.
Apollo Haymarket is part of the boutique mini-multiplex chain acquired by Vue in 2013. While the cinema has re-branded and is now Vue Haymarket, at the time of the inspection it was still Apollo Haymarket. With a focus on bar, cafe and high-end snacks, it is good to see that the then Apollo’s attention to detail extended to all aspects of health and safety when it comes to concessions. We trust that this has continued as part of Vue. Comments were minor points; again popcorn bags stored on the floor and the ice scoop left lying on top of the ice.
A Commendable 4 Out of 5: Curzon and Odeon
Two cinema chains achieved an average of four out of five for its central London cinemas: Curzon Cinemas and Odeon-UCI.
The former is the much lauded art-house major that has made a major push into high-end food and beverage offerings, with the Curzon Soho being its flagship that got a four in 2012. Its other Westminster cinema on the street that gave it its name also scored a four in 2010. There were comments about popcorn and food debris in the cupboards behind the bar and the storeroom area, which were recommended to be cleaned, which is what must have cost Curzon Street Curzona top score. For the Curzon Soho the issue was an ice machine not properly cleaned.
Odeon has had a tougher fight to even get a four because many of its cinemas were acquired from the old ABC chain, which had reputation as the proverbial ‘fleapit’ cinemas. The exhibitor should thus be commended on achieving a four, more so for older venues like the Panton Street Odeon, rather than the flagship Leicester Square Odeon that has seen million-pound refurbishments. Three out of four Odeons increased their scores by one notch between visits while the fourth only had the one visit in the timespan measured that gave it a four.
Issues commented on included the Edgware Rd Odeon had dirty floors and no hand drying facilities in 2011 but still got a four. By the time of the next inspection in 2013 it got a five with the only comment being that the fridge temperature was 10 degrees instead of the recommended eight. The Odeon Leicester Square only scored a three in 2011 on account of mouse droppings, but in January 2014 it got an improved score of four. Odeon Panton Street scored four out of five in 2013, meaning that my memories of its having sticky floors are clearly out of date. However, mouse droppings were found in the drinks dispenser cupboard, so it is only because of remedial pest control action having been initiated at the time of the inspection that it probably escaped a three. The Odeon Whiteley’s got a three in 2011. Mouse droppings but also deteriorating equipment, cleaning of equipment and popcorn and dirt on the floor were mentioned. The following year it had smartened up and got a full five, perhaps not surprisingly as it was the year the luxury dining The Lounge concept was launched there.
Overall it should be noted that eight out of 14 Odeon cinemas in London get a score of five. However, one that was not included by Westminster Council was the Odeon at 40 Leicester Square, that only got a two in 2011. So while Odeon is overall doing quite well, there are obviously still pockets with potential for further improvement.
Good But Could Try Harder: Cineworld and Vue
Both Cineworld and Vue scored a respectable average of 3.5, which puts them just above the ‘Generally Satisfactory’ category that is a three. However, in the case of Cineworld one of its cinemas started from 2 while one Vue cinema went down from a four to a three.
Cineworld Haymarket is a gorgeous old cinema that because of its location away from Leicester Square has perhaps not received as much love as it deserves. It only scored a poor two in 2011 on account of dirty floors, food stored on the floor and mouse droppings. However by 2013 it had improved significantly to a four with minor issues like cleaning the inside of a fridge, that means it was probably not far off from a five. For the Trocadero the 2010 visit resulted in a three, a score that was repeated in 2012 (mouse droppings) but improved to a four the following year, despite there still being a question surrounding the presence of rodents. Out of seven Cineworld cinemas in London, four score a five (plus an extra five for the Starbucks at one of the cinemas) and two fours, while we note that the two for the Trocadero has not been updated since the 2012 visit.
Vue only has one cinema (not counting the Apollo), which went down from a four to a three between 2011 and 2012. There was no mouse droppings but proofing was required and there was sticky syrup from the soda machine on the floor, as well as structural issues. Of all of Vue’s London venues, its West End one scores the worst, with all other scoring five, apart from one four. This demonstrates the need to bring this one Vue up to the same standards (if not done already) as its newer Westfield multiplexes.
Empire Cinema – Previously ‘Large Number of Mouse Droppings’
This leaves us with just one cinema, which we have decided the exempt from the score ranking. The Empire scored a paltry two after its 2012 inspection. This was due to mouse droppings, electrical issues and food handling. The following year it was notes that there was “evidence of mice activity at your premises in the form of large number of mouse droppings.” Just how much? Take a look at the document from Westminster.
The report went on to comment that cleanliness was an issue.
We contacted Empire Cinemas and received the following response:
The issues raised were a direct result of disturbance caused by building works in adjoining properties and have been actioned/rectified and as the attached note states Westminster are satisfied and the case closed.
Unfortunately as the inspection programme is a cyclical one the current stated score does not reflect the current standard and we look forward to our next inspection and returning to our usual 5 star rating.
On the 30th of July 2013 Westminster Council indeed sent a letter stating that “work required by the Hygiene Improvement Notice dated 23rd of May 2013… has been completed satisfactorily.” There was no new score given and as such we have exempted Empire from the ranking until there is a new scoring.
It should also be noted that out of 11 of the 17 Empire Cinemas listed on the Scoresonthedoor website five receive 5 stars, three receive 4 stars, two receive 3 stars and Leicester Square is the only one with a 2 star. As such Empire obviously has high standards overall, though not to say there there isn’t room for improvement.
Empire Cinema Leicester Square is also in the process of being re-fitted to house an Imax screen and a second large screen, so we assume that this will involve a re-fit of the concessions and bar area as well.
Contacted by Celluloid Junkie the UK’s Cinema Exhibitors’ Association (CEA) stressed the hard work that has gone into improving and maintaining high standards for and by all of its members:
We are pleased that the findings are overwhelmingly main positive, in that both the Association and our members see ensuring that audiences can enjoy the food and drink offering in UK cinemas, confident that the highest possible standards of food hygiene are being observed, as an absolute priority.
We have in the last few years issued detailed guidance to operators on compliance with existing legislation in all four nations, but recognise that this in the main simply complements the comprehensive internal policies already laid down within each company.
Overall London cinema goers can thus be reassured that the food they are munching on as they watch the latest blockbuster might be expensive but is quite safe to eat – just don’t overdo it on the sugar.