Disney’s brain trust lures best, brightest

Disney’s brain trust lures best, brightest – Walt Disney Co

Ron Ruggless

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – With the deft touches of foodservice neurosurgeons, Walt Disney Co. executives have become expert at doing brain scans on the rest of the industry, sometimes transplanting ideas wholesale and other times dissecting a segment’s best expertise.

The company routinely rummages through the industry’s best and brightest for consultants to offer ideas, solicit advice and even run restaurants on the park properties.

Disney has picked the brains of other restaurateurs since 1959, when founder Walt Disney issued a personal directive to his newly appointed food committee. Richard A. Nunis, chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, says Disney told the group, “From now on when you go out to dinner and you have a meal, go in the kitchen and meet the chef.”

“We were working on a shoestring at Disney,” says Bob Ziegler, director of participant affairs for Walt Disney World, recalling the original Anaheim, Calif., park’s launch more than 37 years ago. Getting experts to buy into the concept and provide park services gave the guests more amenities, from UpJohn Pharmaceutical’s running the park’s drugstore to the Santa Fe Railroad’s subsidizing the park’s locomotives.

Those partnerships extended to foodservice as well, with such big-name companies as Kraft and Coca-Cola underwriting food courts. Later, when Epcot Center was launched in Florida in 1983, such big-name chefs as Paul Bocuse and Roger Verge supervised the nouvelle Chefs de France in the France Pavilion of the theme park’s World Showcase.

“They have been beneficial to us,” Ziegler says of the partnerships with companies and consultants. “It offers a different experience to our guests and gives them more variety and selection.”

The World Showcase provides a prime example. Within a few city blocks, the pavilions of China, France, Italy, Japan, Mexico and Morocco serve food prepared under the guidance of culinary experts from each of the nations.

A |culinary training ground’

“Disney is the best culinary training ground in the world,” says Keith Keogh, Epcot Center’s executive chef. “You can go into the China Pavilion and talk to a chef who cooked at the Beijing Hotel two years ago. You can get cuisine interpretations as they exactly are. You can go to Morocco and do the same thing. We don’t have to look something up in a book and try to interpret it. We have the direct sources here from Switzerland, France, Italy, China, Japan – wherever. Any culinarian on the property has this access.”

World Showcase Italy, for example, features a menu created by L’Originale Alfredo di Roma Ristorante, a branch of the Roman eatery credited with creating fettuccine Alfredo in the 1920s.

Those outsiders give the pavilions authenticity, but Larry Slocum, Disney’s vice president for foodservice, says the company retains the final say on all menu and operational changes.

Not all the foodservice expertise is imported. Disney also looks close to home for ideas – both old and new.

At the Disney-MGM Studios theme park, the company doffed its hat to the past with a replica of Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant.

In an agreement forged with Walter Scharfe, who owns the Brown Derby rights, Disney blocked out a piece of Hollywood’s heyday.

“Guests are getting a slice of the original Brown Derby,” says Barry Carlson, general manager of food operations at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park. “That was the restaurant that everybody went to. It was always known as a place where a lot of agents and stars would hang out. It was something for theming purposes that would be indicative of Hollywood.”

The Derby brims with authenticity, duplicating the celebrity caricatures on the walls and the signature cobb salad and grapefruit cake on the menu. Working with Scharfe, Disney cloned those original recipes as closely as possible, Carlson says. The theme park Brown Derby even stages “streetmosphere” catfights of gossip gurus Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

Disney occasionally has gone to other restaurateurs to create eateries from the ground up, not just consulting on the concept but actually owning and operating the restaurants on the property.

Two restaurants on the three-and-one-half-year-old Pleasure Island at Walt Disney World, for example, are owned and operated by The Levy Restaurants of Chicago.

“We’re very proud of the fact that we are the only restaurateurs to develop, own and operate restaurants on Disney properties,” Bill Post, president of The Levy Restaurants, says of the Fireworks Factory and Portobello Yacht Club.

“They went through a national search, and that national search led to Levy,” Post says.

“We’re a company that’s incredibly small by a Disney standard,” Post adds, “but we’re the type of company that approaches its business very much with the kind of mentality that Disney is renowned for, from a service standpoint, from a creativity standpoint.

“They looked at Pleasure Island and said, |Here’s an opportunity where we’d like that same level of creativity and imagination and innovation into foodservice as we have in all of our theme parks.'”

Chicago-based Levy, which has about $100 million in annual sales at 36 units ranging from fast food to the fine-dining Spiaggia and even racetrack concessions, was the company that Disney picked, and Post says it was logical.

“Everything that we’ve ever done is different; we’ve never done two things alike. And I think that inspired them,” Post says. “I think when you talk about innovation, some of the things we’ve done from a foodservice point of view are foodservice firsts in the Midwest or the country.” Levy restaurants were among the first to introduce charcoal grilling 14 years ago, a wine list dedicated to American vintners and wood-burning ovens. “I think that was very impressive to the Disney people,” Post says.

Disney also taps impressive talent when it’s researching new concepts.

When Euro Disney was on the drawing boards, the company went to consultants from across the nation to get input into the park’s restaurants. Pano Karatassos’ Buckhead Life Restaurant Group in Atlanta consulted on the Hotel New York’s Parkside Diner and the Steakhouse restaurants at Euro Disney; the staff at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco consulted on what became the Los Angeles Bar & Grill at France’s Festival Disney.

During project planning in the summer of 1988, the company also put together a think tank that included a half-dozen U.S. chefs, several food writers and a couple of instructors from the Culinary Institute of America.

The group included Stephan Pyles, chef and co-owner of Routh Street Cafe in Dallas, who spent three days at Disney World.

“They wanted to get ideas about food in this country and how the French might perceive it,” Pyles says. Disney executives bounced ideas for menus and concepts off the group and sought their reactions.

$1.2 million in popcorn sales

Pyles says he was amazed by the staff’s dedication to Walt Disney’s vision and the fact that one popcorn stand pointed out during a tour of the park grossed $1.2 million. “That’s more than many restaurants,” Pyles adds.

Disney food outlets are indeed high volume, Post says. The Pleasure Island restaurants have annual sales of nearly $7 million each, he notes. Dinner entree prices at Levy’s Italian Portobello range from $12.95 to $22.95. At the barbecue-grill Fireworks Factory, entree prices run from $12.95 to $23.95.

Now, three and one-half years after the restaurants opened, the Levy managers meet weekly with the Pleasure Island management. “It’s very much an open atmosphere of communication,” Post says. “We need to know what’s going on the Disney property, and we react in as proactive a manner as possible. They need to know what’s going on in our business.

“We’ve certainly learned a lot of positive things by being involved in this environment,” Post says, adding that Levy’s partnership with Disney has had “enormous impact” on his company.

“Disney is held in such high esteem in today’s society because they represent a lot of things that are good and wholesome and all-American,” he says. “Everybody is very envious of the position Disney has built for itself based on its standards for cleanliness and service. So for us to say we operate in partnership and own and developed these restaurants down at Disney makes peoples’ ears perk up and eyes light up when we’re making a pitch for other potential projects.”

|Teamwork type of process’

Development of the two restaurants, Post adds, was a “teamwork type of process.”

“They had their team of |imagineers’ on the project to develop the story line and mythology of Pleasure Island and some of the restaurant dwellings,” he says. “We took the story line from there and embellished on it.”

Working with Disney’s design crew, Post says, stretched The Levy Restaurants’ creativity. “It allowed us to test our limits and push ourselves from a design point of view and to explore things we hadn’t done before.”

Creativity is a key when Disney looks beyond its borders for ideas. When the company was seeking experts to help craft its Annette’s Diner malt shop at Euro Disney, it enlisted the help of The Ruby Restaurant Group, which is based in Newport Beach, Calif., and operates 13 ’40s-themed malt-shop restaurants.

“One of the real positive things they do is give you a lot of room for creativity,” says Doug Cavanaugh, president of The Ruby Restaurant Group. “Once they have made their choice and they’ve selected you, they trust you. And they gave us full opportunities to promote our concept within that arena. We appreciated that. We didn’t have too many restraints. That allowed us the flexibility of really bringing that American flavor to France.”

Cavanaugh says he and the Ruby’s staff spent about two years with the Disney crew to create the retro diner.

“They wanted to find somebody who could execute the food and give them the recipes and the operational expertise,” Cavanaugh says. “So luckily they chose us.” He says Annette’s used Ruby’s menu and recipes, and the California group had a hand in refining the kitchen, revising the seating and table arrangement, deciding the placement of waitress stations and even determining the layout of the cooking line. The group also spent a month training the French staff during the opening in April.

While Annette’s is larger than any of Ruby’s 13 outlets – nearly 7,000 square feet compared with the Ruby’s range of 1,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet – Disney sought a consultant who could re-create an American institution on European soil.

“When you walk into a Ruby’s, you kind of get that Disney feel and the attention to detail,” Cavanaugh says. “We emulate the Disney spirit as much as we can. A lot of the people in our company grew up here in Orange County [Calif.], and we all went to Disneyland and admired their standards and expertise. And we kind of mimicked that. That’s probably why they were drawn to us.”

Once the group was hired as a consultant, Cavanaugh says, “they pretty much gave us free rein. They were very much all ears. They wanted to find out as much as they could. They were very cooperative. They re-created the Ruby’s style food and flavors in Europe.

“We found it a very positive working relationship”, he says, adding a caveat.

“Everything about the relationship was extremely positive up until the very last day, when they stole our director of operations,” Cavanaugh says with a laugh. “I would do it again, but I would sign a clause that would say they couldn’t steal any of our people.”

COPYRIGHT 1992 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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