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 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
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.”
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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.
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
“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