Vice President, Food and Beverage
If one measure of a great foodservice operator's capability is her ability to achieve consistent, high-quality results in multiple segments and multiple venues, Mary Niven has put a pretty high notch on the industry yardstick.
Following a successful early career as an operator and then regional manager for a foodservice management company, she served as operations manager for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Athlete Foodservices. Then, as director of dining services for the University of California¯Los Angeles, Niven guided dining operations during a period of major renovation and new construction for its dining halls.
In that period, she totally restructured its foodservice labor and production systems, producing over $1 million in annual savings that helped fund two major renovations. As part of those efforts, she also introduced one of the segment's first "marketplace" dining venues and a wide range of new retail foodservice concepts to the campus. She developed a reputation as a director who could produce top quality food in high volume operations while meeting demanding financial, labor and menu-mix standards.
That experience provided the career stepping stone to her current position, as vice president of food and beverage for Disneyland Resort. There, Niven has overseen and upgraded the operation of 56 multi-concept outlets that span the quickservice, casual dining and fine dining segments. These include the high-end services of such noted destination restaurants as Napa Rose and Club 33.
Over the past four years, she has reduced Disneyland's overall food costs, reduced inventoried SKUs by 40 percent, increased check averages and upgraded key restaurant menus to better serve the broad demographic base of customers served by the iconic California resort. With results like that, it's no surprise she was the top contender for this year's Silver Plate award in the Specialty Foodservice category.
"The college market taught me a lot that has been helpful in the resort segment," Niven says. "When customers go to a theme park or hotel property, the choice isn't primarily made for the food, just as they don't choose a university because of the food.
"At the same time, food has a tremendous impact on the guest or student experience once they are there. In both cases, foodservice is a support business that's essential in helping the organization meet the customer's expectations."
Niven notes other parallels, such as the wide variety of venues that often fall under management's umbrella. "Your business strategy has to be broad enough to encompass everything from a quickservice kiosk to casual eateries to top-drawer private catering," she says.
"Your staff development, training programs, purchasing and facilities planning all need to be integrated so they can effectively support these widely varying service styles. Alone, each line of business could never afford to have all of these resources to the degree they are possible in a multi-venue environment."
The Disney organization has long promoted the idea that employees are "cast members" and that an important part of their role is to "tell the story" that makes up the Disney experience.
"Compelling stories have three basic layers," she observes. "A great story begins with a 'hook' that resonates with the customer. The second layer involves concept development— creating an environment that allows people to become immersed in the story. Finally, there is a layer that involves functionality.
"That means telling the story in a way that allows it to handle the large numbers of people we serve here and supporting the story with the right culinary skills, equipment and the logistics of food production. You need to make it consistently repeatable and still ensure that it remains a quality experience that enhances the story you are trying to tell."
Because of the large numbers of children who visit the resort, nutrition has played an increasing role, she adds.
"For example, we want to give parents a chance to be more creative in their food selections. Munch, Inc. (a new meal option introduced in 2003) is about finding a balance between what kids want to see in a meal and what parents want to see in their meals. It's based on a child's selection from among several core entreès, but lets parents pick the sides that go with it. They can choose baby carrots instead of French fries, or milk or juice instead of carbonated beverages.
"Whatever the choices, the meal comes out presented and packaged in the same way, even though there is customization in the back room. We look to minimize the problem that occurs if a child looks over to the next table and sees something he or she did not get."
At the other end of the story-telling spectrum, Niven has sought to further enhance the longstanding reputation of restaurants like the award-winning Napa Rose. "We've invested in training certified sommeliers so that we now have over 130 across the resort," she says. "The general manager there, Michael Jordan, does much of the training himself. Even by the glass, you can buy 60 different wines there. It is all part of enhancing the story and the guest experience."
A former NACUFS regional president, Niven has long been active a wide variety of industry and community groups, including the Women's Foodservice Forum, the California Restaurant Association, the Orange County Food Bank and Disneyland's own Volunteer Team. She also serves on the Board of Advisors for the Collins School of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.
High on Niven's objectives for 2005: ensuring foodservice support for the many special-events and promotions Disneyland has planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its original opening. "We want to make it the happiest homecoming on earth," she says. "We have a great story to tell."
What's on Niven's Plate?
Annual meal transactions: 27 million
A Balancing Act
Managing operations in a highly complex environment often pits one key objective against another, says Niven. While achieving balance is never easy, here are some of the strategies she has used.
• EVALUATE CORE NEEDS AND TURN THEM INTO "FILTERS" that help you make decisions. "You have experiences you want to create, employees you want to support, financial, procurement and production objectives you want to meet. Make sure your goals are clearly stated in ways that can be considered in the decision-making process.
"For example, if you are making a decision on a new concept, ask: 'How does it fit with our guest demographics now? In the next three-to-five years? How do our team's skill sets match the new concept? Do we need additional training? How does it affect the foods we are buying?"
• ADAPT TO YOUR DEMOGRAPHICS AND MAKE THE GUEST EXPERIENCE YOUR PRIMARY OBJECTIVE. "The West Coast is very cosmopolitan. We have put a huge emphasis on creating experiences for the Hispanic community, which is an important part of our base. We have focused on identifying what this group wants from its Disney experience.
"We repeatedly ask, what can we do to improve the comfort level of that experience? Just a few examples: we offer orange-flavored beverages at every restaurant.We've added tropical fruits to the fruit carts.We've dedicated restaurants to producing truly authentic Mexican cuisine at both Disneyland and the California Adventure parks. Name tags identify over 700 of our cast members who speak Spanish as a primary language.We want all of our guests to have the richest and most rewarding experience possible and look for every opportunity to provide it."
• MANAGE YOUR SKUS. "This is more difficult than people imagine because proprietary items are often necessary to support restaurant and menu brands. But the payoff is large— we inventory about 10,000 SKUs today, 60 percent of what we had five years ago. For chicken alone, we went from 64 cuts down to 22.We tiered purchasing specifications to cut inventory and improve product velocity. At peak season we approach a just-in-time model for deliveries; these higher velocities also make it easier to support key vendors."