Is Your Movie Theater Making You Sick?

Popcorn photo c/o granitegrok.com/

Popcorn photo c/o granitegrok.com/

Let me ask you a question. Would you cook up fresh popcorn only to stuff it in a garbage bag, store it on the floor of a closet overnight, and then serve it the next day as “fresh popcorn?” Would you even want to eat such a food item? If so, would you be willing to pay “theater prices” for such a treat?

While working for a movie theater, if you saw a drink cup fall to the floor, what would you do with it? Throw it away, right? Ah…but that would be a problem if you were a concession stand employee at the American Fork, Utah Cinemark theaters.

Missi* was newly employed at the Cinemark Theatre at The Meadows in American Fork. Grateful to have a job unlike many kids her age, she was eager to please. On her second day of the job however, she got a rude awakening as to just how much she would be required to do to keep her job. As she spotted a drinking cup drop to the floor, she put it in the trash. According to Missi, her manager, Mr. Bejera, proceeded to yell at her and asked, “What do you think you’re doing?” Thinking that perhaps she had violated some kind of an accounting protocol, she took the cup out of the trash and placed it on the counter where the movie theater put broken and unsalable items. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what Mr. Bejera had in mind. Missi claims that Mr. Bejera continued to holler at her saying, “That cup is not dirty!” He then reclaimed the cup from the counter, placed it on the top of all of the other soda cups to be provided to the consumers and hovered over Missi until she had actually sold the cup to an eager movie-goer.

For those of you who may practice “the three second rule” in your home, you should know that according to my interview with the Utah County Health Department, a concession stand drinking cup is a single-use item and should have been discarded after it fell on the floor.

Photo c/o Melanie Sochan | The Saginaw News

Photo c/o Melanie Sochan | The Saginaw News

Unfortunately, this potential nightmare doesn’t stop there. Missi and two other employees of Cinemark at The Meadows confirmed with me the policy of overnight popcorn storage. The unsold popcorn is placed in a garbage bag—yes, the same ones they use for the garbage cans—NON-food grade—, tied off, and then stored in a closet overnight. One morning when the employees began set-up for the concession stand, they went to retrieve the popcorn bag only to see that it was open. They had no idea if it was left open during the entire night, if the cleaning crew had a sudden craving during their shift, or if any critters had made their way into it during the storage time. Regardless, they retrieved it from the garbage bag and served it fresh that day.

For you to know, the Utah County Health Department Guidelines will permit the popcorn to be served the next day IF it is stored in a food-grade container. Yeah, I’m always putting my leftover chicken teriyaki in a garbage bag and then serving it the next day, aren’t you? In fact, I think Costco would save a us all a whole lot more money if they just bagged all of the bulk items in garbage bags instead of all of that fancy food-grade packaging—don’t you?

But wait. It gets better. The policy at this Cinemark Theater is that when a concession popcorn bag drops on the floor, the employees are required to leave it on the floor UNTIL there aren’t any customers in sight. Then they are required to pick it up and return it with the rest of the popcorn bags to be sold. Now, I ask you. If this is such a safe, ethical, and moral practice, then why are the employees admonished to wait until no customers are in sight?

When you’re ordering a hot dog, you may want to inquire specifically as to when they were cooked. In my opinion, if I’m paying $5-$7 for a hot dog, I don’t want one that was cooked at 11:00 a.m. the day before.

This same Cinemark Theater has a militant policy about employees coming in sick to work. “If you don’t get a replacement for your shift, then you are strongly encouraged to come into work,” says Missi. Don’t you find it interesting that the doctor’s offices don’t even want you to come in with the flu and yet a movie theater insists upon it? Sick employees are berated and treated with contempt for missing work due to illness. Management even goes so far as to arbitrarily require a doctor’s note prior to an employee returning to work if they aren’t satisfied with the timing of the absence. Whether an employee is sick with a headache or flu-like symptoms, the theater has no problem requiring them to work at the concession stand or handling tickets.

Sample Food Handlers Card. Photo c/o kcmo.org

Sample Food Handlers Card. Photo c/o kcmo.org

Were you aware that there are no standard requirements regarding WHEN an employee is to have a Food Handlers Permit? For some practical reasons a great deal of leeway is provided to employers at food establishments as to when their employees must be educated in the handling of food. In the case of this particular Cinemark Theater, numerous employees were able to work at least 30 days at the concession stand without verification of an FHP.

Lastly, as I feared, there are absolutely NO requirements by the health department to clean arm rests, seat backs or door handles in a theater. I interviewed three employees from the theater. None of them could recall a time in which they were asked to clean any more than the “standard”—vacuuming the carpets, cleaning the baseboards, or peeling gum off of the theater seats. So yes, when you rest your hand or arm on that armrest in the theater, you are joining the throngs of people before you who sneezed, spilled, coughed, drooled, etc. Sani-Wipes, anyone? I can assure you that I will never look at popcorn and a soda the same way again.

As we enter this concerning flu season, I find it even that much more alarming that regard for the public’s health is taking a back seat to the cost of a concession stand cup or popcorn bag. That message speaks much louder to me than any movie promotion ever could.

Cinemark Movie Theater photo c/o lezgetreal

Cinemark Movie Theater photo c/o lezgetreal

You should know that the regional and national Cinemark offices clearly did not take this issue seriously. In spite of several detailed telephone messages over several days, no one felt that this issue was serious enough to merit a comment on this story. I don’t know about you, but the silence on the other end of the phone line speaks volumes in my mind. It solidifies the impression that the company culture of Cinemark tolerates these types of actions and that it’s not isolated to a rogue middle manager. Apparently an issue like this plays second fiddle to what Brad Pitt has to say about his current girlfriend and kids as he promotes his latest film.

So what does all of this have to do with preparedness? As we enter the flu season I’ve shared two articles with you over the past week regarding “germ warfare.” I’ve shared with you many ways that you can be mindful and better prevent yourself from becoming ill amidst all that threatens our bodies during this season. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that part of that prevention may require avoiding a particular movie theater, or perhaps all of them.

May I just remind you that you have every right to be HYPER VIGILANT about your health? Don’t look the other way when you see questionable hygiene or food handling practices. Address it head on. Say something to a manager. Call the health department. (The Health Department assured me that all complaints will be handled anonymously when addressing the business owner.) Ignoring the issue may cost you your life. At the very least it will cost you a couple of sick days. Ultimately you are the one responsible for your health. I can assure you that in the future I will certainly think twice about the real price of attending a movie.

*The real name of the employee has been changed.

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Comments

After the ACORN expose this may just be a great follow up. Surely there are some theater employees who would be up to a YouTube video to highten awareness.

Regarding salad bars, on more than one occassion I have reported to the manager that the canned peaches and pineapple had a sour taste. Pizza franchises are really bad about topping off containers.

Amazing how vigilant one has to be to try to avoid illness in areas where it should be a non-issue.

I'm astounded that managers could be so stupid! That is disgusting and any decent human being should be appalled. I will never attend that movie theater again!

(And encouraging sick workers to come in to work in our new H1N1 world...where they could possibly infect other, more-at-risk, people???!! Unbelievable!)

I am not shocked at all by this article but glad you posted it. I wasn't aware of Cinemark's policies but frankly, they are the highest priced chain in my area so I don't go there anyhow.

I worked at a movie theater through college and the Food Handling standards then were obviously more strict than now. We also used big bags to store popcorn overnight but they were indeed food handling and storage bags. Unlike the theater in this article, if we dropped a cup, it was marked 'spoiled' with a black check via a Sharpee.

We also were required once a month to wipe down and clean all seats from top to bottom, all bathroom stall doors (not just the handles) and all surfaces that hands could touch.

What a sad shame they don't do this anymore. It is defintely a public health risk! I wonder what the policies are for other theater chains?

Wow. At the rate that we go to movie theaters they would never miss our business anyway, but this makes me glad we only go once in a blue moon. I would have thought that throwing old food and dirty cups away would have been common sense, but apparently not...thanks for the info.

Unbelievable. I don't go to theaters very often and usually wait for the dvd. Now, I'm glad I do. Thanks~

I know for a fact that other fast food businesses have the SAME work policy - if you are sick your options are: get a sub or come in to work or be fired for not showing up! If they can't find someone to work for them, they feel like they have to go to work even when running a fever and coughing. I walked out of a fast food restaurant because the girl taking orders had that all telling fever look in her eyes and looked like she could barely stay standing up!! I know personally of one young man who was congratulated on how well he did on the food safety test. He had not even taken it! His boss took the test for him. It's a mess 'out there'.....

I worked in food service for 7 years in 3 different states for the same company. I also had mangers that were absolutely obsessed with sanitation. One out break of a food born illness will destroy a food service provider was how they saw it. They got angry because a lot of folks don't treat food sanitation in their own homes as we did, and were afraid that we would get blame for what folks do to themselves at home.
Many folks think home is safe, nothing bad can happen there. Most food born illness happen in the home.
Cutting boards and counters: Do you have different cutting boards for Meat, chicken and vegies?
What's great is the new "plastic" cutting boards. They are cheap and you can keep several of different colors on hand. Throw them in the dishwasher and your done.
Do you use a sanitizer? Bleach is the best and cheapest. A couple of tablespoons in a quart spray bottle filled with water is great. After cleaning just spray it and let dry.
We used to keep a "bleach bucket" all cleaning towels and cloths, all got thrown in there after use.
Invest in some money in food service grade thermometers for your oven, refrigerators and freezer. Also the Probe type. Actually the price is very reasonable.
Trust me You would be scared to death to know about my horror stories of the "Salad Bar" A lot of times the Crocks are just topped off. You may have items in the bottom of the crocks that are a week old or more. My boss insisted that everyday all items from the salad bar were placed in new crocks. I believe that he was unusual in this by how many folks complained. I think that salad bars should be called "Sickness or death roulette". Funny you are trying to eat healthy at the salad bar and may be the most dangerous place in a restaurant.
A lot of workers complained but in over 7 years in 3 states we never had 1 food born illness. That was feeding large numbers in "college food service" Catering and off-site catering. The company's attitude was "It's hard to create more Business, if you kill or make your customers sick".

Thanks for the article. Makes you think twice about buying food at a movie theater!

Kellene,
Do you know any reporters that would enjoy a little project on this topic? Especially now, with the flu scare and all, it would probably be a popular topic. If you know someone who would take it up .... ?

I did share it with some...still am...

I worked for Cinemark in the late '90's for a brief period of time. If your article is true then things have changed a lot since I worked for them.

When I worked concessions, anything that fell on the floor was trash. All food was made fresh for that day. No popcorn was ever stored overnight; we threw it out if there was a small amount or took it home if there was a large amount (and never in trash bags either). Bathrooms were scrubbed down on a regular basis and you were expected to not only wash your hands but also wear gloves. I don't know what the policy was on the theater itself since that was handled by the ushers.

I do know that there were some at the theater who would work double shifts. And it wasn't a surprise if people showed up sick for work.

If concessions has gone downhill that much, then it shows the theaters are almost dead. I was told as part of my training that theaters don't make enough money on ticket sales to pay for the movies they show... every profit comes through concessions. That's why the prices are so high and why I was trained to really sell the products.

Anyway, that was my experience ten years ago.

My daughter worked (briefly!) in our local supermarket. She was very ill at one point, with a horrible upper respiratory infection, and vomiting. The manager told her to "stand there and smile". She quit, and I called the health department. This is nothing new to low wage jobs. I work in a small clothing store, and we also have to find a replacement, or come in sick. It's ridiculous, and disgustingly unsanitary to have sick people handling food and dealing with the public in general!

Lori, your post as well as other similiar ones (and e-mails) that I've seen just reinforce why we need to do as much for ourselves as possible now, and to make sure that we take the time to be as sanitary in our own homes as is possible as well. I hope we can all learn from this article--not just say to ourselves, well, I'm not going to that theatre again. I wrote it as a wake-up call that we simply can't rely on businesses to have our health and nutrition as a part of their interest.

I work in a movie theater, and I can say that I do see a lot of this stuff. Our boss actually does make us re-use cups, bags, candy or anything else that falls on the floor, and we do bag popcorn in garbage bags; there's much more too, as the article mentions. I can honestly say that after working in a theatre, I will never eat theatre food again.

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