San Francisco may have more vegetarians and health-obsessed eaters per capita than any other U.S. city, but it also has a fair number of pork lovers — and to serve them, numerous restaurants cure their own meat, offer whole hog dinners, and so on. The city is also a haven for independent and repertory films, with a handful of theaters showing classic and non-mainstream films. Now, it turns out, a cinema is combining San Franciscans' love of pork with their love of film.
The April issue of Film and Kinescope Enthusiast, just out, has the story:
One Theater's Popcorn Secret: Bacon Fat
By Mimi Maiale
In these tough economic times, some movie theaters are luring in customers with classic movies at bargain rates, raffle drawings, and other incentives. Lester "Les" Scribbles of the Royale Cinema in San Francisco has his own secret weapon: popcorn popped in bacon fat. "Although San Francisco has a reputation as a city full of strident vegetarians, I can tell you that people in this city are crazy about bacon."
The idea came to Scribbles after a chance meeting with Susan Wheeling, owner of City Charcuterie, which also runs a catering business that leads to a steady supply of leftover bacon grease. "During some 'how's business?' small talk, she asked me if I had ever made popcorn in bacon fat," says Scribbles. Despite years in the movie business, he hadn't. When he gave it a try at home the next morning, he knew it would be a blockbuster hit for the Royale.
"It was …just amazing," he says. "It had all that smoky, salty, bacony goodness just permeating every kernel. No butter necessary."
For now, Royale is the only theater to be able to offer the treat. Because the cinema actually pops its popcorn the old-fashioned way, it could easily adapt to the new fat. The big chain theaters rely on state-of-the-art machines that have closed systems using a proprietary soybean-and-canola-oil blend. They would gum up irreparably in seconds if the more solid grease were substituted.
Sourcing is important to Scribbles — he tries to buy organic popcorn, locally-made candies, and fruit juices for his concession stand. Fortunately, City Charcuterie bacon met his standards. Wheeling uses only small, humanely certified producers in Northern California.
The new bacon popcorn was wildly popular from the start, but there have been some glitches. One person was kicked out of a showing of the classic Latvian film "The Melancholy Cobblestones of Riga" for giggling helplessly "Mmm...bacon" throughout the film.
There have been some unhappy comment cards from vegetarian patrons. "It's torture to come to the Royale now. Don't you know this is like waving a beer under the nose of a recovering alcoholic?" said one.
Some film-festival organizers have expressed concern. "Cooking popcorn in bacon definitely makes our theater off-limits for some vegetarian, Jewish, and Islamic audiences," says Scribbles. "But our accountants ran the numbers and found that the bacon popcorn is a better profit center than film festivals, so we'll probably stick with the bacon fat. Also, many customers love that we're supporting free-range hog farming as well as people who make cured meat the old-fashioned way."
I think that this is an interesting development for a lot of reasons. It's sound business for the theater and a new revenue stream for City Charcuterie. The Royale could even experiment on its classic-movie nights: using pancetta fat for a Fellini retrospective, say, or chorizo-renderings for a Roberto Rodriguez double feature?