Martin Cowley, a “cast member” for Disney, got his ears, as he puts it, after two interviews and a four-month wait. He previously worked for Foodmaker Inc at Jack in the Box headquarters in San Diego where he heard about the position as manager of equipment systems at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts from one of his vendors. Today, 25 years on, he’s an award-winning, highly acclaimed senior manager of design and construction, creating “magical” experiences for the families that bring their children to Disney enterprises around the globe.
The magic of Disney’s world continues to enchant him as he works on the design and operation of the vast global network of 41 hotels, 11 theme parks, four cruise ships, two water parks, and 14 country club resorts. Like Mickey Mouse in the sorcerer’s apprentice role in Fantasia, his spells reach far.
Speaking at the FCSI Americas Conference in Phoenix, Arizona this spring, Cowley told consultants that they are the most valued players (MVPs) on his projects’ team. From the many snack carts and food stands to five-star dining experiences, that team has to constantly and consistently “design for flexibility” to keep pace with changing menus. Citing Tom Ricca FFCSI of Ricca Newmark Design for the important role he plays, Cowley told attendees that consultants “are the core of getting these projects to work. They are the most talented and knowledgeable people on the projects. It’s an art form watching you guys work.”
Cowley sees his role as one of asking “what type of menu do you want to serve” and then explaining how it can be achieved with the right flow, equipment, infrastructure and code compliance. Schedule and budget are the hardest part of every project, he says. Building a brand new resort that includes a theme park, hotels and entertainment complex, all of which have to open on the same day, “brings a whole new dynamic into play”.
“When Disney develops a property of significant scope, the overall budget is often set prior to design. This is extremely challenging in “right-sizing” the restaurant. We have to consider our unique type of volume in design and the volume is expected to increase every year. As we all know, too small is the most common problem, but there is a tipping point where too large can become inefficient. The goal is to make sure we have prevented any major issues or “show stoppers” as we say, during design and design reviews. Also, knowing the requirements, demographics and guest behaviors and preferences from country to country, and in a lot of cases coast to coast, is invaluable.”
Asked about choosing equipment long in advance of its installation, Cowley notes: “This is something I feel very strongly about. Menus and food trends can also change frequently and look different at opening than they did during the design process. We have to be able to respond to that quickly.
The design process
“When we are designing a new park, the process usually starts five years or so before opening,” he continues. “The key is to design for flexibility and determine what the high-cost items would be if you had to change something down the road and accommodate it up front. So I use components such as Utility Distribution Systems (UDS), overlapping fire systems and versatile, multi-use equipment.”
He researches and applies the most current technologies available at the time if it is beneficial to the operation. “We build locations to last for 20, 30 years and know change is inevitable,” he says.
Even after 25 years, Cowley still finds everything about his position exciting. “Working for a company such as Disney, the imagination and creativity is quite amazing. As far as foodservice goes we operate all facets and never do the same thing twice. It’s always different and unique, and everything must blend with attractions, entertainment and merchandise. It doesn’t get more exciting than seeing guests enjoying the time and effort that goes into a project from everyone. It’s incredible to see them having fun with family and friends and being able to say ‘we did it right’.”
Designing and building a new park is “very fulfilling,” Cowley declares. “The expectations are high to deliver an over-the-top experience for our guests. Working on a project for several years, looking at it on paper and then seeing it come to life with the energy and enthusiasm of our guests gives me a feeling that is hard to describe.”
To ensure that guest expectations are fulfilled is no easy task. Cowley explains that guests hold Disney to a higher standard. “We have guests that visit our properties around the world regularly and it has to be better each time,” he says. “We have to make sure our locations are safe, clean and deliver a quality product. They’re all themed to some level and help in telling a story.”
The rise of the consultant
Cowley designs for food safety to give guests confidence that what they are getting is safe. “I have to provide the proper tools to maintain the highest level of safety. I always go above and beyond what’s required by code.”
His experience enables him to look at a project from all sides and apply it to the process “from hardline design, including building systems, infrastructure and equipment, to an operational perspective such as flow and programming, and relay info from one side to the other”.
Over the years, he’s seen the role of consultants change dramatically for the better. “I’ve seen a dramatic resurgence of consultants over the last 15 to 20 years,” he says. “People used to say, ‘we can do without them and save the money’. Now, they’ve become a critical partner and it’s because they bring tremendous value to the process. One of the first things I ask at the start of a project is ‘how soon can we bring the consultant on board?’”
Sustainability plays a large role and significantly impacts Disney operations, especially now as California experiences the worst drought in recent history, leading Cowley to focus on water conservation. From bringing natural light into the kitchen to orienting buildings to take advantage of direct sunlight, to putting emergency exit stairwells outside so they needn’t be air-conditioned, he looks for energy efficient practices and equipment. As a National Restaurant Association Kitchen Innovations judge, he wants more recognition for energy efficient products.
At Ricca Newmark, Tom Ricca FFCSI observes, “from churros to five-course dinners, food is essential to the Disney guest experience.” However, it wasn’t until 2005-2006 that kitchens designed in the 1950’s by Walt and key staffers began to be redesigned. The challenge, he says, was one of improving productivity in spaces with no capacity for expansion. “It’s a challenge of looking at overall flow. Five years ago, we were asked to redesign some main kitchens built under a plaza, tunnels and elevators. We wound up relocating a cast cafeteria to create space for greater efficiency.”
Ricca credits Cowley as “the most knowledgeable systems and equipment person. He is so up to date and always selects the best. Working with him is a delight. We’re still working on updating 60 food and beverage outlets in Anaheim and California Adventure. We’ve added cook-chill technology, vacuum packaging of foods for longer life and embraced the latest finishing technologies, introduced wood-burning pizza ovens, and more.”
As you enter Disney World, there’s a sign at the service entrance saying “You are going on stage”. Disney staffers are the “cast” that makes the show happen, says Ricca. “When we were hired to look at storage, production, service areas, and refrigeration we worked with Envision Strategies – the places that were updated saw improved throughput and guest experience and a huge impact on the bottom line,” he adds. “Today, Disney is adding outlets that are responsive to current trends.”