WESLEY CHAPEL — At 10:55 a.m. Friday, the first movie began in Theater 14 —The Women, followed five minutes later by Nights in Rodanthe, then 10 minutes later Igor — and the staff of nearly 150 let out a deep breath. After years of planning and months of rehearsals, the curtain was up and Wesley Chapel's biggest movie theater had opened, thus far, without a hitch.
"I need to find some wood to knock on," mused Jeremy Welman, chief operating officer of Cobb Theatres, the Alabama-based company that created the Grove 16 Theatre and Cinebistro at the Grove shopping center off State Road 54 and Interstate 75.
After about three years of planning, the 16-screen cinema and bistro opened Friday.
Welman has been in the movie business since he was 14 years old. He grew up in California and a buddy got a job at a movie theater. "Free movies and cute girls," the friend said to him, so Welman also got a job. He never planned on making a career out of theaters, but he did. He managed his own theater by the age of 17 and now, at 41, he is in charge of a major company. Cobb Theatres began in 1921 with a cinema in Fayette, Ala., and by 1996 had 643 screens in the nation.
The Cobb family sold the business in 1997, but a few years later, Bobby Cobb (who began his career at 7 years old by selling popcorn at his family's theaters) founded the new Cobb Theatres. In 2006, he hired Welman, who says he loves the family atmosphere of the company, which now has 13 locations with more opening soon.
This Wesley Chapel location is only the company's second Cinebistro, which is a restaurant on the second floor of the 86,000-square-foot building. Customers can dine there or while watching their film in a special balcony section. The other Cinebistro is in Miami.
"We've taken it to a whole new level here," Welman said. He is a down-to-earth and approachable guy, but as he walked around the cinema, staffers in crisp, new uniforms stood straighter and smiled, as is normal to do when the big boss passes by.
Each Cobb Theatre is planned according to its area, so none of them are alike. This one in Wesley Chapel caters to both families and people who want a more mature evening.
There is a small arcade and a large cafeteria-style concession stand, with traditional fare like popcorn, nachos, burgers and ice cream, but also wraps, salads and lattes. There are party rooms that can be rented for kids' functions. But upstairs at the Cinebistro, it's another world: sleek, dark wood, servers in black, tables with one fresh Gerber daisy.
This is a restaurant, so patrons don't have to buy a movie ticket to eat here. But people also can have their meals while watching a film in a special balcony section, with those under 21 not allowed.
"Some people don't want to be near kids — jostling, texting each other, kicking the backs of their seats," Welman said.
The Cobb team has acclaimed chefs for the menu here, which is mostly comfort food with a fancy twist — smothered cornflake encrusted pork cutlets, macaroni and cheese with grilled asparagus and a truffle Gorgonzola sauce, grilled meatloaf marsala.
There's also pan-seared red snapper, diver scallops, calamari, nori-wrapped tuna tempura and more. Up here, the concession stand has Toblerone and Lindt chocolates. Popcorn is offered, but the machine is hidden. The balcony seats are wide and plush, with wood folding trays for meals.
The staff has been rehearsing for the grand opening, by first serving each other, then family and friends, then vendors and contractors, and then, Thursday night, an invitation-only slew of government officials and the like. On Friday, the cinema still smelled new — more like carpet than popcorn. The keys on the arcade games were shiny and the floors not sticky. It was so clean, one stray straw on the floor popped out as it was so out of place.
Welman will go back to headquarters — and his wife and four kids — in Birmingham, Ala., on Sunday. But Friday afternoon, he was relaxed, the preopening adrenaline lessening as things hummed as they should. He planned on watching movies Friday night and Saturday. Even after all of these years in the theater business, he still loves movies, and says people need them now, in this economy, more than ever.
"It's an escape," he said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.