Thursday, July 24, 2014
Lasting concession connections: Evans family has deep ties to NAC
“As chairman of the NAC board, I have no responsibilities now,” chuckles John Evans Jr., senior VP, Gold Medal Products. Having served “for decades, probably 26 or 27 years at standard board levels” and as immediate-past president before Jeff Scudillo, this respite is well earned.
Evans explains how the National Association of Concessionaires structures its leadership. “I spent many years as a regional vice president, a position that the president appoints without any term limitations. Before becoming an NAC president, you work as president-elect alongside the president for two years. And after you have served another two as president yourself, you become chairman and continue to provide support and advice to the organization. It’s all about training leadership and ease of transition. I’ll miss [the responsibilities], to be honest, but I will always stay involved with NAC.”
“Of course, not everybody has the time commitment available, since these are all volunteer positions,” he attests. “I happen to be blessed to have enough time available because my company supported me in those positions all these years. You got to have that support from your day job to really transition anywhere in an association like NAC. Gold Medal has been a firm supporter of what NAC stands for and that is, in essence, professionalizing the leisure concession and food service industry.”
In doing so, Evans says, NAC counts on education. “We are an education-driven organization. We are really the only place where you can gain perspective and network and learn how to run concession stands, simply said. We are proud of our offerings. A lot of people have put a lot of time and work into the organization to get us to where we are today.” Especially since NAC has to deal with the “disadvantage of not being the primary professional association of our membership,” Evans feels. “For our theater members that is NATO, with whom we work closely and happily, of course. We have also done projects with the International Association of Venue Managers, but again we are not the primary representative. NAC is kind of out there…”
Gold Medal, however, has been right in there as an active member from day one. “My father was involved in NAC since the beginning and even before that, when it was still called the National Association of Popcorn Manufacturers.” And John “J.C.” Evans Sr. remembers it well. “From the early 1940s on, the association has grown beyond popcorn manufacturers,” he tells FJI. “All the board members, who voted to change the name to NAC, thankfully shared the vision of the concession industry that we see today. My father, David C. Evans, was on the board of the National Association of Popcorn Manufacturers as a jobber-distributor long before we even made our first popcorn machine at Gold Medal. NAC blood runs in the veins of the Evans Family. I was actually president when we introduced the change in by-laws that limited terms of the president. And I was the first one to leave on that ground,” he laughs. “My dad was on there for six years, I represented the equipment manufacturer segment for 14 years, and John Jr. has been on the board for who knows how many years.”
“Those were the ‘good old days’ when the pre-poppers primarily helped put together NAPM,” J.C. Evans continues his reminiscence. For those of us who do not know, what are pre-poppers? And what do jobber-distributors do? “These are different segments of the industry. We also had the popcorn processors and brokers, because many processors sold their corn exclusively through brokers. The manufacturers and wholesalers were the pre-poppers, in fact, because the theaters rarely popped on premises during that time.”
Machines were expensive, if you could even get one, J.C. Evans explains. “Pre-popped was much more convenient. All the wholesaler-distributors would deliver 50 folding cartons and a bag of ready-popped popcorn in volume to match. All that theaters needed to do was to get warmers and fill the boxes. This was an excellent cash control too, rather than dealing with a bunch of kernels and popping oil,” he opines. “Even though there are other ways today to duplicate that control, when popcorn was new to the industry, we had to first come up with all those things.”
At what time did exhibitors actually introduce popcorn to the movie going masses? “World War II put popcorn into every theater and onto the candy stands,” which, as J.C. Evans reminds us, they were still called back then. “Exhibitors couldn't get chocolate and candy anymore, because sugar—like oil, metal and pretty much everything else—was either rationed or not available. Fortunately, the people who owned commercial-size popcorn popping machines offered them something else to sell with a nice profit margin. While Gold Medal was a very small popcorn wholesaler in those days, we already shipped to North Carolina, and all over Indiana and Ohio. There were probably no more than a dozen pre-poppers in 1941, and they were mainly seed companies too. But, more frequently, the candy companies got into the popcorn business when they had nothing left to sell. In a heartbeat, they carved up the few commercial poppers that were still available. You have to remember that, by late 1941, manufacturing plants and factories were converted to the war effort. The defense industry had priority to control all metal. Steel, aluminum…you couldn't get anything to manufacture popcorn machines. They were not available at any price.
“Most of the theater owners who had sold popcorn before the candy shortage,” he continues, “were ‘small town’ or in ‘less than elegant’ neighborhoods.” J.C. Evans is convinced that popcorn was already sold in those types of theaters during the 1930s. “When the popcorn side of our business started to grow, we were first selling to theaters that were located in not the most prestigious neighborhoods off the fringes of downtown Cincinnati,” he further recalls. “I remember my dad commenting at breakfast one morning in 1940 or 1941, after making a sales call on the RKO Paramount Theater on McMillan Street. The manager had told him, ‘Popcorn!! I’ll close this damn theater before I ever sell popcorn here.’ All the better theaters felt that way, at least while they could still get candy. I have never forgotten this.”
By that time, Gold Medal also sold to several small-town theaters, one of which comes to J.C. Evans’ mind distinctly because his wife had property in the town. “This brought back memories of stenciling burlap bags with Henn Theater, Murphy, North Carolina,” he chuckles. Amazingly enough, not only is the Henn still around today, it shows first-run product too.
After the war, as materials and equipment were available once again, Gold Medal became a dealer for Star Manufacturing. “There was a nationwide trucker strike,” J.C. Evans recounts. “It was nasty; they weren't even hauling consumer goods. So my dad hired a heavyweight boxer who also drove a truck. We rented a flatbed trailer and went out to St. Louis and filled it with theater-model popcorn machines, unloaded in Cincinnati and, because we had orders for another truckload, went right back.”
Was that fun for the young Evans? “I was a student and I worked for my dad after school. Yes, that was fun to me. If our company had been a corporation, there’s no way I would have been allowed to work. But it was a family business… Although, as a kid I wasn't really talking to customers, I remember unloading my first trailer full of 100-pound bags of corn... And I only weighed 130 pounds then,” he emphasizes with a laugh. “It was a triumph!”
When J.C. Evans was a sophomore or junior at the Cincinnati College of Business, “I took an almost 4,000-mile trip to call on dealers. You went to ‘Film Row’—and every city had one then—to see the guys that were in the business. That’s where I got my start. Gosh, no. I don’t remember my first sale,” he answers our question. “I thought I was doing pretty good, but at only 20 years old trying to sell popcorn machines…any sale seemed great.”
Parallel to the war and post-war-related expansion of the business, the Popcorn Processors Association, which preceded and was independent from NAPM/NAC, was doing great things for the business. In 1949, they began working with SmithBucklin, a PR/marketing agency in Chicago that would later specialize in consulting for different trade associations. “To promote popcorn, they came up with The Popcorn Institute. Bill Smith was probably the best friend the popcorn industry ever had, because he convinced the processors to ‘tax’ themselves at the rate of a few cents per hundredweight of corn produced to fund the Institute in its goal to put popcorn on the map in North America.” It seemed to J.C. Evans as if “every month for decades, every newspaper had a feature story on popcorn. In fact, the public was introduced to popcorn as America’s new ‘super food’ before anyone had even created the word. They talked about the merits of popcorn, its nutritional value, all the things you can do with popcorn… Although the home-popping benefited more from those activities [than theaters and other leisure venues,] popcorn was firmly established and became ubiquitous in a large measure from what SmithBucklin did.”
What the National Association of Concessionaires can do for you today is where John Evans Jr.’s advice comes in. “If you are not yet a member of NAC, check out what we have to offer. It is a great group to network with fellow exhibitors and allied industry suppliers. You are going to find everything, from programs that will help you increase per-caps to training information. NAC is just a very good resource that is available to help professionalize your image to the public.”
So what are the characteristics of a professional concessionaire? “We are best served doing what we know and doing that well,” Evans succinctly responds. “The menu is evolving and growing. Full-service dining comes to mind. It’s a wave and hopefully it’s a long ride. Every year there is something new and there are some fabulous facilities out there. As little as five years ago, some of those offers wouldn't have as much as crossed the owner’s mind,” he feels. “I still say that there will always be a place in the theater trade segment for products like popcorn, hot dogs and Coke, that’s what people associate with the movies. My father always said, ‘Don’t forget to dance with the one that brung ya.’”
NAC Favorite Moments
“One of my favorite moments was winning the prestigious Bert Nathan Award. That was kind of the cheese on the cracker, being recognized by your peers as a leader in the industry. I was really sad when I passed the gavel on to Jeff because I really enjoyed being president of NAC for those two years. It is such a great opportunity to work with all these great people.”
—John Evans Jr.