A Rouman family cinema has been a fixture in Rhinelander dating back several generations. Current owner George Rouman is determined not to let the pandemic put an end to the legacy that’s almost 100 years in the making. 

The State Theatre, located in downtown Rhinelander, endured the Great Depression. Today’s Rouman Cinema, located for the past 20 years at 1205 Lincoln St., Rhinelander, is currently in a battle to come out the other side of the pandemic. 

It’s been a journey unlike any other. On March 18, the cinema closed to the public. 

That was the first time in my life, and probably the first time in company history, that we did not have regularly-scheduled movies playing at our theater,” he said.

Months later, the cinema dabbled in privateviewing-only offerings. On Aug. 28, the cinema resumed hours for Tenant and other movies but with a mixed response. Rouman made the difficult decision to operate solely on weekends starting Sept. 25.

“There aren’t a lot of broadly popular movie titles being released right now. For a theater to operate effectively, there needs to be a good assortment of product in the marketplace,” said Rouman, who operates the cinema as well as the Fun Factory. “We’re trying to find an economically feasible way to provide out-of-home entertainment for those would like it.”

The Rouman family entered the entertainment realm in 1921 with the operation of the State Theatre. Over time, they have had a variety of theaters in the area, operating in the cinema’s location for the past 20 years. The cinema includes the Fun Factory Sweet Shoppe, a candy and chocolate shop that creates candies for theater-goers but also for the concession supply business.

The Fun Factory brand also includes gelato made on-site. Fortunately for Rouman, the Fun Factory was deemed essential with the Safer At Home order, continued production and maintained its online presence. That has helped to sustain Rouman through the pandemic that initially left the theater to be creative with outreach. That included, at different times, offering curbside concession sales of theater favorites and private theater rentals.

“It was nice to have the smell of popcorn back in the building and to interact with customers, but it wasn’t paying the bills,” he said. He averaged one group per day; In normal times, the six screens offer 30 shows a day.

“I was thrilled to put people through and keep somewhat active, but our normal business model was not in play,” he said. Summer is traditionally blockbuster time, but the studios continued to bump out releases of Tenant, Wonder Woman and a variety of other anticipated big draws.

Staffing has also been a hurdle. Movie theaters are a fairly entry-level workplace, Rouman said. He had 24 people on his payroll to work two shifts. With the new reality, he only needed limited staff.

“What I needed was a prolonged, sustained period of new releases and the confidence of audiences to come back to a safe, clean and comfortable environment,” he said.

He did so limitedly. In the meantime, Rouman was able to keep cogs in the wheel of Rouman Amusements turning with the Fun Factory Sweet Shoppe It was the latest in a series of shifts he made with regard to the two businesses. When he purchased the original store, he made gelato there but quickly moved it to the cinema because of space. Soon, that warranted expansion of the cinema kitchen into the lobby space to allow for a bigger gelato shop and remodeling and expansion of the redemption game room.

He then invested in a mobile serving cart. After putting the gelato cart in front of the concession shelves and staffing it, he realized a huge increase in sales. It also prompted him to think about gelato sales beyond the cinema building, and good thing he did. Five years ago, he invested in a second cart and a cargo van to transport it. That led to hitting the wedding show circuit they used to attend to promote chocolates as favors. This time, they promoted the cart.

“We knew we were onto something when at the first show there was a line snaking around the aisles throughout the entire show to try the gelato,” he said. Now, he owns five carts and can accommodate up to five events a day.

Some of that has continued with the easing of restrictions which is heartening to Rouman.

“I love being part of the events,” he said. “I do a lot of the serving, and if I could, I would do that 100 percent of the time. I love seeing people’s reactions to the experience we provide.”

Fun Factory’s chocolates also helped to sustain the overarching business and turned what could have been a negative situation into a positive one around Easter. With just a month to go before Easter, one of the top three busiest candy holidays, Rouman got a little nervous about inventory.

“You place orders months in advance so chocolate suppliers know what to have in stock,” he said. As a result, his inventory was stocked for the creation of Easter baskets, eggs, bunnies, fudge and more. He had money already invested in payroll for staff to make the candy — and yet, he still didn’t know if he’d be able to operate.

He got creative and melded elements of the businesses, creating quarantine care packages featuring a nine-pint-container package; six were gelato flavors, two were filled candy and one featured handmade chocolates.

Rouman offered delivery or curbside pickup, holding a breath on how well it would work. “Well, we sold hundreds, and it performed better than I could have imagined,” he said. “I was thrilled and energized by the support we had.”

That spurred thinking about creating personalized Easter baskets as well, selling them online so people could order them from the safety and comfort of home. “Those and the quarantine packages saved us,” he said. “Once Easter weekend came, we shut down for a few weeks, able to close on our terms versus the pandemic forcing us to.”

The pandemic has been a full experience of reinvention, time and again, for the gelato, candy and theater components of Rouman Amusements, Rouman said. He hopes for a happy ending as he’s worked hard to sustain and reinvent during the pandemic.

“Throughout history, you hear about how companies do one thing and [shift] when things get tough,” he said. “They end up doing another thing that is a great business decision. I have always operated like that but this is truly survival mode.”