Local business owners get creative through pandemic

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson

When businesses were shut down because of the COVID-19 Pandemic a year ago, many small business owners found themselves in a position of having to quickly strategize how to keep their dreams afloat without the ability to have customers through their doors. With very little warning in advance of the shut-downs, decisions had to be made quickly and it was no different for Montevideo Millennium Theater owners Erich and Jayme Winter. The couple closed the theater the day the shut-down was announced. At the time, their booking agent had a discussion with them in which they were told that this was not expected to be a temporary thing. For their particular business, the shut-downs would prove to be more challenging than for many other kinds of businesses because of lack of product. That delay in the product has led to delays in returning to business as usual for the theater.

“One of the main reasons why we’ve had such a tough time getting back is because our product is determined by the [production] studios and if they don’t have a product, we have nothing to show,” said Erich. “We were really stuck because they weren’t releasing movies.”

The Winters were aware that the delays in production and release dates would mean delays for their own ability to reopen and so they knew they had to come up with ideas, and come up with them quickly to keep business going. “For us, it was our only income,” said Jayme. “It was a scary and stressful time.” Within days of the shut-down initiating, the pair announced on social media that they would be selling freshly popped movie theater popcorn for pick up and delivery during the shut-down. “We realized well - we have to do something and it was the only thing we had,” said Jayme. “It was the community that made it a go.” 

They didn’t know what to expect, and so they popped their theater popcorn and hoped for the best. “The first night we did that, we had what I thought was great sales with 40 bags of popcorn,” said Erich. By the next evening, he had to call in sons Jonah and Caleb for reinforcements as they very quickly sold beyond the previous night’s sales. By the end of the evening, they sold 180 additional bags. 

From there, the couple began brainstorming additional ideas. Jayme says they had always talked about perhaps offering caramel popcorn, but were not equipped to do so. Then, Erich found a product they could test that would allow them to produce caramel corn with the space and equipment that they had, and when he brought the sample home to test they knew they had a hit. They added the additional flavor to the line-up of popcorn offerings each weekend during shut-down and soon enough, they purchased a small tumbler to additionally produce cheese flavored popcorns to add as well. From there, the ideas kept coming. “Most things are born out of necessity,” said Erich. “We never had a need to worry about anything other than movies and popcorn.”  

The ideas evolved into creating gift boxes of flavored popcorn for holidays such as Easter. Jayme began brainstorming ideas for new flavors of small-batch gourmet popcorns, and Erich would develop the protocol for making the flavors happen. Jayme created packaging, names the products and handles the marketing, and working together as a team, the couple began adding in more new flavors all the time, such as loaded baked potato and cookies and cream.  

As spring of 2020 and the shut-down drew on, the couple came up with another idea. Earlier that year, Erich had been watching an online auction and noticed a large projector listed. He bid on and won the projector, not having a plan for it at the time, but when the shut-down began, Erich started working on utilizing that projector for a new way to conduct business within their limitations. When they’d purchased the theater in April of 2017, the couple had remodeled all three of the seating rooms inside, and Erich had kept the old screens. He built a frame for the screen, and dug out some light and sound stands that he had from the over 20 years he and his father worked in lighting and sound systems for events. They were able to borrow a trailer to mount the screen on, and working with the City and Countryside Public Health, developed a plan to open up the parking lot for some drive-in movies in the summer months. The first was held last May, and when they were approved for the first round of Paycheck Protection Program Loans, they were able to bring their employees back to work serving concessions in the parking lot for the drive-in movies.

“They would go out to the cars and take the orders, bring a tote with the orders inside out to the car, sanitize the totes, and do it all over again,” said Jayme. “We had outdoor bathrooms but within a month we were able to have one family unit at a time back in to use indoor restrooms.”  

On the first night of drive-in movies, Montevideo Millennium Theater had over sixty carloads of people show up for the event. Because no movies were being released, the couple replayed the classics on their outdoor screen, purchasing the DVDs and licensing them, asking for requests from the community on their social media page.  “It was so amazing to watch - like watching people come out of their houses that first time and being so excited or with tears in their eyes being so happy to be out around people doing something,” said Jayme. 

By mid-July, the Winters were able to open up one theater indoors with limited seating as well as continuing the drive-in theater, but because of the lack of movies, they were left again with the classics - opening with the movies Forest Gump and the Harry Potter series. “A lot of theaters chose to just stay closed. We didn’t take that option,” says Jayme. With very few new movie releases since then, the theater still hadn’t been running at their previous schedule, limiting showings to weekend matinees and early showings as well as their traditional Tuesday discount nights. Then in November, the theater was in the classification of businesses that were shut down for the second time in 2020. With the second shut-down making them again pivot, the couple amped up their popcorn production, now being able to use the entire facility for it, and again created holiday-themed gift boxes for the Christmas season. “From November to January all we did was make gourmet and regular popcorn,” said Erich. The couple sold over 325 gift boxes of popcorn plus many, many bags throughout the holiday season. “We were shipping them all across the United States,” said Jayme. 

Because of the popularity of the popcorn, the couple was able to invest in some equipment better suited to producing larger batches of popcorn, as they’d been working with such small equipment before, meeting orders could mean eight hour days of just producing the popcorn. Now they can produce four times as much as they were previously. They also have another ten flavors they hope to be producing soon, and have recently purchased a cooker for even more capability to produce new flavors. Through much trial and error, they have perfected seasonal flavors and added custom-colored batches of gourmet popcorn to the line-up so that they can create custom orders for graduations and other such events. “So it’s like a test kitchen sometimes,” Jayme says. 

For the last couple of months, Montevideo Millennium Theater has been undergoing some construction in the portion of the building located between the theater and the neighboring bowling alley, where the Winter family has been remodeling to add in a full kitchen to produce the popcorn and two meeting rooms that can be rented out either for meetings with multimedia projectors or be used for birthday parties at the theater. The project began two years ago, but the need for roof repairs put a hold on the project, and then the pandemic further delayed the project. They anticipate the new space will be done by the end of May.

Since reopening to the public in January, the theater has started to receive some new releases from production studios, and hope to see that pick up more soon, but know that releases will continue to be delayed for some time still. “What we’re seeing now is … it’s like starting over,” said Erich. “We still have people coming in confused about whether we are open or not.” Jayme adds, “It’s confusing if you aren’t involved in a business it’s hard to know when people are shut down and for how long when people are opening back up. But the community has been so, so supportive.” In the last couple of weeks, the couple has been able to bring back some of the employees and plan to bring back more over time as they are able. For the most part, their family of four has done much of the work themselves while the financial uncertainties forced them to be conservative with business spending. It hasn’t been all roses - the couple had to rely on their personal savings throughout the time and Jayme says there were many times they had to question how long they try to hold on to the business with all of the uncertainty of the year. “We just kept pivoting because we had to,” says Jayme. “And everything that happened was a gift - with all the support from the community and our family, it made it easier. It made the four of us as a family closer. And we were humbled by it. It brought our vision of how we wanted to move forward as a business a lot clearer.” 

For Erich, it made him realize how much he missed people. “I didn’t realize how much I missed people and they started coming back and the first couple of nights it was really emotional,” he said. 

Even now, the Winters know the movie release dates means they will likely still not be open full time until June or July when they hope to be able to add weeknights back and hopefully late showings soon to follow. The couple plans to continue utilizing their parking lot drive-in movies set-up as well, using it for some special showings in the warmer months.