Surely, flicks with Cameron Diaz or Denzel Washington will be a big draw to the new site at University Mall, but the menu inside could hardly be further than typical movie options of nachos and candy.
Take the especially popular SMG Coconut Chicken Tenders, which chefs hand bread and cook on site, not reheat from a plastic bag. Or the Steak Cobb salad, where chefs grill and hand-cut steak slices, while bakers cook breads on site for burger buns and pizza doughs. The signature dish is the Loli-Chop Pork Chop, a bone in pork chop with pork belly Mac & Cheese and agave dipping sauce.
“We like to think of ourselves as something of a restaurant that happens to show first-run movies,” said Thad Kelley, executive chef of Studio Movie Grill Holdings LLC, during a preview tour of the site that opens to the public next week.
The process of going to dinner and a movie will be something particularly new for the area around University Mall, which is now on an upswing after some tough times. Officials with the City of Tampa and the University of South Florida have targeted the area for growth, and University Mall sits in a favorable location between I-275 and a pack of fast-growing institutions: University of South Florida, Florida Hospital, Moffit Cancer Center and the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.
The 14-screen SMG site takes over from a previous movie-theater operator that closed down in January 2013, and is the first in what could be a round of new stores and restaurants to come to University Mall. While many mainstream stores left, a few major brands remained, such as Victoria’s Secret and Chick-fil-A in the food court.
SMG lobbies tend to become a social hub, Kelley said, partly because SMG guests can order their tickets in advance and pick their individual seats like airline tickets. That takes the pressure off rushing into the theater to find a seat, Kelley said. Instead, the Dallas-based chain (Tampa is the 18th location) made a luxurious lounge area out front where people can order cocktails and hang out right up until the movie begins.
Guests can enter from inside the mall, or from the outside, second-floor parking deck — similar to the arrangement at AMC theaters at WestShore Plaza Mall.
Well before movie starts, cooks are prepping vegetables, meats and hand-making sauces, because the company tries to make everything possible on site. Rather than a traditional movie theater lobby, there is a wide lounge with leather seats and booths, because guests tend to hang out both before and after movies, Kelly said.
Once seated in the theater, guests place their orders with servers who crouch down by the deep, leather seats. Cooks work in an extraordinarily large 2,400 square-foot kitchen that’s built for speed, Kelley said. They target 12 minutes between order and serving, and will have more than 50 “runners” to shuttle food.
If a guest needs help mid-way through a movie, there are small red buttons on each seat tray to call servers. Thirty minutes before the movies end, servers discretely come back to process credit cards. There’s no rule requiring guests to order food. Tickets prices vary, but tend to run $9.75 apiece, while entre items range from $10 to $14.
Serving dinner in the dark does comes with its own challenges, Kelley said. Pivoting seat trays have raised edges so drinks or plates don’t inadvertently slip off onto the floor. SMG chefs test how each menu item stands up both hot and cold. Because a movie-watcher may find themselves fixated on a flick for a half hour before they go back to munching on the French Fries, the SMG fry recipe is made to keep them tasty for far longer than typical fast-food fries.
Because slippery spaghetti might end up a tad messy if people eat in the dark, SMG instead uses Cavatappi spiral pasta that is easily fork-eaten and holds up well with sauce. Rather than serve things like a traditional steak, the menu is geared more to items guests can eat with a fork or with their hands, like a Ceviche Lettuce Wrap appetizer or things like Sriracha chicken sliders.
As for why SMG picked University Mall for its first Tampa-area location, Kelley said the company doesn’t tend to focus on any one particular economic strata or demographic. While the company is opening up locations in places like Scottsdale, Arizona, and Arlington, Virginia, they’re also opening a new location in South Chicago. “We find the success of a site has less to do with how affluent the surrounding area is,” Kelley said. “The service and the experience sets us apart and people come to us.”