New Parkway employee Italo B sprinkles chopped basil onto a pizza made for the New Parkway's food program. Photo: Pete Rosos
New Parkway employee Italo B sprinkles chopped basil onto a pizza made for the New Parkway’s food program. Photo: Pete Rosos

The screens have been dark at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater since March, and instead of crowds of moviegoers, the only thing filling the theater’s two viewing rooms for the past six months are crates of food.

The nearly eight-year-old movie theater pivoted to a pickup and delivery food service two weeks after the state’s COVID-19 shutdown, and while making food hasn’t completely replaced the $180,000 monthly revenue from screening films, it has kept the business alive. It’s also demonstrated the loyalty of the theater’s customer base.

“It’s fair to say it was an instant hit,” said Carlos Courtade, the New Parkway’s director of community outreach, about the theater’s food program that started in April. “I think people were trying to do whatever they could to help. They didn’t want to see The New Parkway shut its doors.”

A beloved institution pivots

Outside the New Parkway Theater during the COVID 19 Pandemic. Photo: Pete Rosos
The New Parkway Theater has been closed for movie screenings since March. Photo: Pete Rosos

The New Parkway is a beloved Oakland institution, the second coming of its forebear, the Parkway Speakeasy, an affordable, quirky second-run movie theater that closed in 2009 after 12 years in business. The original Parkway claimed to be the first lounge-style movie theater in California, with old sofas and other nontraditional seating and a menu of beer, wine and housemade pizza. When the New Parkway opened in the Koreatown-Northgate neighborhood in 2012, it picked up where the old Speakeasy left off, adding more programs and community events and expanding its menu.

Before the pandemic, moviegoers could enjoy a robust selection of housemade pizzas, sandwiches and entrees, including many vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, along with several local beers on tap. When the shutdown happened, the New Parkway tapped into its culinary skills to set up a new business. Unlike other establishments that tried to keep a semblance of its past day-to-day operations, the New Parkway staff pivoted entirely by making and delivering meals crates that contain a week’s worth of food.

The New Parkway opted for delivery and contactless pickup because staff felt it was the safest option, Courtade said. Early in the pandemic, theater owners and staff pledged not to re-open until there was a vaccine. Asking customers to risk their health to support the New Parkway didn’t fit its ethos of serving the community.

“We think of ourselves as more of a community space than a movie theater specifically,” Courtade said. “Opening up in a limited capacity is antithetical to our mission statement.”

The New Parkway’s new direction came thanks to the guidance of the theater’s general manager, J. Moses Ceaser, who used to run a popular weekly meet-up/cooking class called Frugal Foodies. Together with his staff, Caeser began planning out an entire week’s worth of meals for customers, even creating separate menus for customers with special dietary needs.

“I don’t think Moses has ever been to a culinary school or anything like that. His background is in documentary filmmaking,” Courtade said, “But he knows a lot about what dishes work. He knows a lot about a variety of different dishes from all parts. He’s really well-traveled so he’s tried food from most continents.”

The system Ceaser devised is simple: Orders come in crates containing eight dishes, one quart of each in a full crate ($125 a week) or one pint of each in a half crate ($60 a week). A sample of dishes one might find in a crate includes fresh vegetable tamale pie, BBQ pork buns and kale salad with carrot ginger dressing. Foods are cold, to be heated before serving. The New Parkway delivers full crates to those in Oakland, Alameda, Piedmont, San Leandro, Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito and Kensington, but offers pickup for half crates or for those living outside its delivery zone.

The food program stays in the picture

New Parkway Theater customer Judith Stacey shows off her half crate of food she ordered from the theater. Photo: Pete Rosos
New Parkway Theater customer Judith Stacey shows off her half crate of food she ordered and picked up from the theater. Photo: Pete Rosos
A New Parkway customer emerges from the theater with a half crate order of food from the theater's new food service program. Photo: Pete Rosos
A New Parkway customer shows off her half-crate haul. Photo: Pete Rosos

The program was popular from the start, with the Parkway receiving orders for 40 crates on its first offering. It’s since grown to 60 orders twice a week, with two-thirds of those orders being full crates.

The New Parkway’s food crates program has been so successful that the theater is already expecting to incorporate it into its business model even after the pandemic is over. But when the theater can once again screen movies, its new problem will be finding space for food preparation. For now, staff prepares the food in the kitchen and puts the orders together in the screening room for delivery or pickup.

But Courtade says that one thing this experience has shown is that the Parkway staff can adapt.

“Not everybody that works at The New Parkway has been to culinary school. But everybody that’s on the team will kind of run through a brick wall for you,” Courtade said. “Once we figured we’re going to pivot into this direction, then getting everybody else on board, we switched. Instead of ushering people into their seats, now we’re just preparing meal crates.”

Visit the New Parkway’s website to learn more about its meal crate program and to arrange for delivery or pickup at 474 24th St., Oakland.