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Erik Burgess, Published February 18 2014

Coming soon to a Marcus theater near you: Liquor?

FARGO - Moviegoers here could enjoy a cold beer with their hot popcorn as soon as this summer, as the owner of Fargo’s two major first-run theaters wants to add liquor sales as part of its multimillion-dollar renovation plans.

Marcus Theatres will present its plan to the city’s liquor control board today for adding a “Take Five Lounge” to the West Acres Cinema at 4101 17th Ave. S.

But some city officials say they are wary of allowing booze in theaters, and the city auditor said he’s uncertain Marcus Theatres will get a $90,000 discount on a liquor license fee that the company says it will need to OK the lounge plan.

Mayor Dennis Walaker, who serves on the city’s liquor control board, said he loves going to movies. But he called it a “really big stretch” for the city to start allowing liquor in a movie theater.

“I’ll have to listen to them and make up my mind,” Walaker said, “but right now, it’s going to take a lot of convincing for me.”

Not like a bar

Marcus has six other theaters nationwide with a bar and lounge area offering pizza, sandwiches, desserts, beer, cocktails and wine. The company also has full-service restaurants at three theaters.

It’s an amenity more and more moviegoers are craving, and it’s an “integral” part of the company’s remodeling plans for West Acres Cinema, according to a Marcus Theatres business plan submitted to the city.

Bob Menefee, the company’s vice president of marketing and communication, said they’ve not had “one issue” with selling liquor in other theaters.

Marcus has liquor guidelines that cut customers off after two drinks, and theaters aren’t allowed to offer discounts on liquor with any other traditional concession item, according to documents the theater company gave to the city.

Customers can not purchase multiple drinks and bring them back for a table of friends, per Marcus’ guidelines.

“This is a casual environment,” Menefee said. “It’s not like somebody going in and spending the evening in a bar. This is meet a friend, have a cocktail, go to a movie.”

The Take Five Lounge proposed for the West Acres Cinema touts an “upscale adult environment” where customers can drink alcohol either in the lounge or bring their beverages into the auditoriums during a movie, according to the company’s business plan.

The liquor control board, an advisory board to the City Commission, will discuss the liquor license request at 1:30 today in the City Commission room at City Hall.

Liquor in theaters?

Menefee said adding the lounge in Fargo depends on if the city is willing to give them a liquor license for a lower price.

The license Marcus is seeking has an upfront, one-time fee of $100,000 and would allow for sale of wine, spirits and beer. The theater would need to have a 50/50 split between alcohol and other sales, which could include food, tickets and concessions, said City Auditor Steve Sprague.

The company claims in the business plan submitted to the city that the initial fee is cost-prohibitive. It requests a $10,000 fee.

“I’d be surprised if the board would discount a license because we’ve got other people in town that paid $100,000 to have that license,” Sprague said. “If they want that license, that, to me, is what it’s going to cost.”

There is another, similar liquor license available for $10,000, but it doesn’t allow sale of spirits, and the alcohol to other sales ratio is 35/65, Sprague said.

Sprague said Marcus hasn’t actually turned in an application for a liquor license yet, but he believes they want to start at West Acres Cinema and then perhaps expand the alcohol service to Century Cinema.

Other than a two-drink limit, Marcus liquor guidelines also call for theater staff to patrol auditoriums “on a regular basis,” and the theater would serve alcoholic drinks in unique, frosted white plastic cups that are easy for ushers to identify.

Sprague said the city wants to remain business-friendly and allow businesses to grow and stay competitive.

“On the other hand, man, where’s the limit?” he said. “Where do we say, no, we just aren’t going to have alcohol there?”

City Commissioner Brad Wimmer, who also serves on the liquor board, said his gut reaction to the proposal was “not negative at all.”

“As an adult, I think it’s fine,” he said, adding that he is eager to hear how Marcus proposes to handle the under-21 crowd often present in movie theaters.

Menefee said local ordinance ultimately dictates whether moviegoers can drink alcohol in the auditoriums or just in the lounge area.

Police Chief Keith Ternes, who is also a member of the liquor board, said he will reserve judgment on the proposal until he hears more from Marcus.

Ternes said the idea of serving alcohol in a theater is not necessarily novel, but he would like to hear more details about how Marcus will tailor its plans to suit Fargo.

New seats, new lobby

The theater renovation plans also include ripping out and upgrading all of the seats at West Acres Cinema and Century Cinema, Menefee said.

The Century Cinema, 3931 9th Ave. S., will get all new “DreamLounger” electric recliners in every auditorium, and a renovated lobby will feature a new vending stand and self-service soda, Menefee said.

The West Acres Cinema will get electric recliners in the UltraScreen auditorium only, and “significantly upgraded” seats in the rest of the auditoriums, Menefee said.

The renovations should start in early March and be completed by the end of spring, Menefee said. The renovation plans aren’t dependent on liquor sales being approved by the city, he said.

The other renovations still need to happen, regardless of what happens with the liquor license, Menefee said.

In 2007, Milwaukee-based Marcus Theatres acquired all of the theaters in the Fargo area besides the Fargo Theatre – including the Safari 7 Cinema in Moorhead. Menefee said he’s not sure the last time they were upgraded.

The business plan filed with the city doesn’t say exactly how much the renovations will cost but described it as a multimillion-dollar project.

Staff writer Wendy Reuer contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518