Mary Niven: Great Food Keeps 'em Comin' to Disneyland

Foodservice at California’s Disneyland, or at one of its hotels, may seem to be galaxies away from the world of non-commercial dining. But Mary Niven, Silver Plate winner-Special Foodservice, who oversees dining at one of the happiest places on earth, bridges the distance between the two and says they are closer than they appear.

At A Glance: Mary Niven
•Vice President, food and beverage
•Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif.
•In foodservice for almost 30 years
•Daily Meal Volume is 25,000
•Manages 56 restaurants and about 200 carts
•Foodservice Sales: "Hundreds of millions" annually
•Oversees 5,000 "cast members"

FoodService Director- Silver Plate - Mary Niven - DisneylandFoodservice at California’s Disneyland, or at one of its hotels, may seem to be galaxies away from the world of non-commercial dining. But Mary Niven, who oversees dining at one of the happiest places on earth, bridges the distance between the two and says they are closer than they appear.

Members of the National College and University Food Service Association (NACUFS) will recognize her name. She was an active member for years, having even held the position of national president in 1996, when she headed foodservice at the University of California-Los Angeles. Niven, who runs dining at Disneyland, Disney’s California Adventure and three related hotels, is a veteran of the business, both non-commercial and commercial. At Disney, however, the lines between the two worlds blur.

“In both the college market, and with Disney, the No.1 product, the No.1 priority, is not food. People don’t pick a college for the food,” she points out. “At Disney the No.1 focus is the entertainment and attractions we provide. Food is not the primary driver, so you [have to] begin to understand how you support a priority that may be different from your core business.”

Dining destiny: Food may not be Disney’s core business, but for the past four years, Niven has made it her  priority to make sure that the dining facilities at the parks and hotels are—or on their way to becoming—destination spots in their own right that provide interactive experiences integral to the overall Disney experience.

The core of the Disney brand, she explains, is storytelling—so her job, too, is to tell a story. “I happen to tell stories through food and service,” she says. “We focus on all the details necessary to bring a story to life, to make it vibrant, and to immerse the guest in the story.” Those details range from the menu selections and décor to the menu design and food presentation.

She strives to give customers a respite from the kinetic experience of a theme park visit. To achieve this, the team has made changes such as expanded table service and broadened menu variety.

Niven is also focused on getting people to think of theme park food as more than just burgers and pizza. Venues run the gamut of service styles from concession carts in the parks to foodcourts to fine dining. She says that she and her team continually seek to improve the quality of the foods they serve and add to the variety of both the food choices and price points so that there is something for everyone and every palate.

The effort is paying off. Since her arrival, guest satisfaction is up; the average check—without the benefit of increasing prices to keep pace with inflation—has increased by 5.6%; wait times are down; and food costs are down, she confirms. But she avoids taking sole credit; instead, she shines a light on a strong cadre of individuals with a singular purpose that she says  should share the glory collectively.

Back on the rancho: Among the new offerings and revenue generators at Disney is a new Latin cuisine concept, designed with southern California’s growing Hispanic market in mind. The concept, called Rancho del Zocolo, features authentic Mexican flavor profiles, moving away from more North-Americanized versions of Mexican fare with which many customers are familiar. The foodcourt-style facility is hitting the mark with a wide range of guests, despite the fact that its offerings aren’t typical. Niven says the dishes hail from the heart of Mexico, where people don’t use many red sauces but rather favor garlic and lemon sauces.

Rancho del Zocolo aims to give some customers a taste of home, while giving others an opportunity to try something new, or as Niven says, “it allows them to be on a food adventure.”

Another relatively new addition to the menu has been Munch, Inc., a program of better-for-you choices for children. Parents are able to order healthful beverages and side items and forego the french fries and other less nutritious foods, while still finding their kids’ favorite entrees on the menu. The key ingredient for this program has been the clever marketing geared toward making it fun to order healthy meals. “We make the fact that [kids] are not necessarily getting french fries a non-issue,” she explains. 

Magic’s in the details: Niven is equally as busy on the hotel side of the house. Her team is revamping the steak house, for example. The menu is more contemporary, she reports, and more comprehensive, featuring not only steak but also seafood and other non-steak dishes that match the steak dishes in quality and presentation.

Disney also refreshed the restaurant’s look—it now resembles a 1950s jazz club with a “contemporary feel,” according to Niven.

The menu and the presentation of the dishes, however, are also central to the dining experience here. Niven says that dishes, designed to be eye-grabbing as well as delicious, turn heads as wait staff carry them through the dining room to customers.“It’s taking a look at the story, and asking ‘how can you make it better, make it  surprise and delight people?’

“That’s part of what we do; we take everyday things and make them special through the quality of the food, the ambience and the presentation.”