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.
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.
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.
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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