From the very beginning until the very end, Cowley is involved in every aspect of food and beverage concept development, design, construction and follow-up, even the renovation or reconcept down the line. It can take five years for a concept to open.
Food and beverage concepts start in partnership with WDI, the decades-old creative force behind Disneyland itself and the countless creations since. WDI essentially serves as the extension of Walt Disney's imagination. "[Walt] died before Walt Disney World was even open, so his brother Roy took over," Cowley explains. "Then, sadly, Roy died three months after the opening."
New movie releases and characters drive new food and beverage concepts because, as Cowley explains, everything starts with the story. For instance, Disney's acquisition of Pixar led to the creation of new lands, parks and, of course, food and beverage outlets.
"Everything is appropriately themed," he says. "The Disney experience is a totally immersive experience where everything is part of the show, which takes you to another time and place." At Cars Land, inspired by the hit Pixar movie "Cars", the menu was developed to reflect the comfort food from diners and drive-ins along Route 66. Menu development, in these cases, starts at a high level and then gets drilled down to the details much closer to launch, says Cowley. Case in point: Popcorn may become pop-cone or chili con queso becomes chili cone queso served in an edible bread cone as is the case at the Cozy Cone Motel in Cars Land, all holding true to the theme.
When it comes to selling the theme of a particular venue, no detail is too small. At the Plaza Inn, the turn-of-the-century concept just off the Anaheim park's highest-traffic corridor, pass-through warming cabinets visible to the guests feature ornate, gold-trimmed doors resembling antique ovens. At a barbecue outlet, an entire charcoal grill, cranking out skewers and other bites, sits surrounded by a fake tree, as if someone chopped a hole out of the trunk and inserted a flattop.
Determining the style of service, from quick-service to table-service dining, is an important initial step in the design process. "Character dining" means dining rooms must be larger, with more space in between tables so that characters such as Cinderella or Snow White can interact with guests, all part of that magical Disney experience. Guests also prefer to "eat where they are," says Cowley, so balancing food options throughout the park is key. "Disney — and theme parks in general — is unlike other operations because it spans a range of foodservice," he says.
Equipment selection comes next. Specifying flexible equipment that can perform more than one function, thus saving space, is important, but that plays second fiddle to durability and capacity because the fun seems to never end at the Happiest Place on Earth. "Operating 365 days a year, our pace is constant," Cowley says.
Given the volume, energy efficiency is an important consideration when specifying foodservice equipment, too. In fact, it's listed as a key element of design at Disney, in addition to safety (number one), courtesy and show.
Sourcing energy-efficient equipment is one thing, but durability can't be sacrificed, Cowley says. It makes sense, too: if a piece of equipment can't handle the volume, it will simply work harder and use more energy to keep pace. This is precisely why Cowley continues to develop standards for equipment specification at Disney, even testing potentially new pieces on-site.
From technology and safety specialists to operations and merchandise partners, financial analysts, industrial and civil engineers, architects, facilities and construction managers, and maintenance, "each concept involves a tremendous amount of synergy and teamwork," Cowley says. "Everyone is a stakeholder in everything we do. We work to integrate all these disciplines together so it's a magical experience for the guest."
It's easy to see how and why Cowley understands all these jobs. Aside from his years in different roles at Disney, Cowley has worked as a designer and drafter, director of facilities for WR Grace (the multiconcept operator once behind Houlihan's and Baxter's), and as a dealer and fabricator in the years leading up to landing his "dream job." "I started in this industry as a detailer, doing shop drawings for custom restaurant fixtures while in high school," Cowley says. He went on to work for JoJo's coffee shop, a fast-food Mexican chain, and eventually Jack in the Box corporate headquarters in San Diego, overseeing operations systems development and design.
An operations person in experience and at heart, Cowley sees things from the line perspective. "He is there in the kitchens and in the production facilities, and he truly understands the issues on a line, from food safety to efficiencies," says Geiger. "Many food equipment technicians and food safety experts don't even have the opportunity to see what he sees. Cowley is a 'people guy' with a technical mind. That is a rare combination in any industry."
Day-to-day Cowley watches how every piece of equipment works — or not. "My job is a little different than someone who works from project to project," he says. "I have to live with everything all the way through to the end, so that really drives the design decisions. Also because it could take three to five years just to build a location."
Careful study and analysis will in part determine if it's time for a reconcept or relocation. "We just renovated half of Main Street because of that and moved a location for better guest flow," Cowley adds.
In recent years, Disney has focused on rethinking things globally for added consistency. "It doesn't matter if you go to Tokyo or Florida, it's Disney," says Cowley. "Guests expect a certain consistency with Disney products worldwide."
It's hard to believe that opening day for the Happiest Place on Earth in Anaheim was once referred to — and still is — as "Black Sunday." In fact, Cowley says, Disney's critics gave the park just weeks to survive.
Asphalt had been laid down just before the media tour and "soft" opening on that hot, sunny day: July 17, 1955. "Opening day was almost like a movie premiere; the women were all dressed up and wearing heels and actually walking out of their shoes because they were sticking in the asphalt," Cowley says. "They ran out of soda and food. Anything that could go wrong did. There was a plumbers' strike and a landscapers' strike. They told Walt when it opened, 'You have a choice — you can either have restrooms or landscaping.' So he obviously chose the restrooms."