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Sunday Brunch

Sunday Brunch: A Spoonful of Salad down at the Mall
February 27, 2011

Last week, we took a tour of Disney's current dining location outside the parks, so today we're borrowing the Fairy Godmother's wand and going back in time to visit Mickey's Kitchen, Disney's first and only foray into the fast-food industry outside of their theme parks.

The first Mickey's Kitchen opened on March 28, 1990 at the Montclair Plaza, a typical suburban area mall in Montclair, California, as a test location.  In May 1991, a second location opened in Schaumburg, Illinois at the Woodfield Mall.  Press releases for the new concept restaurant claimed it would be a healthy alternative to the typical fast food restaurants offering nutritious and wholesome menu items without straying too far from the expected fast food items.  Upon opening, guests were so excited for the new store and restaurant, the Montclair Mall was mobbed by 25,000 guests looking to try out the new Disney shopping and dining experience at their local mall.  Mickey's Kitchen featured a wide variety of menu items low in fat and calories including meatless burgers, turkey frankfurters and fresh-fruit shakes with prices ranging from as low as $0.50 to as high as $3.25.

(Image from Jim Hill Media)

Healthy ingredients weren't the only spin Disney put on fast food. Not only did the theme parks' food have quirky names, but Mickey's Kitchen was sure to serve up a colorful variety of Disney characters attached to food items. Guests looking to stay in shape for all their goofy sport antics could cut those calories with the low-fat "Goofy's Burger." They could stay healthy with a mouthful of fresh greens, chicken, and nonsense words with the "Supercalifragi-Chicken salad" or "Salads-in-Wonderland."  Guests completed their entree with a side "Soup-a-dee-doo-dah," "Piglet Corkscrew Fries," or fries shaped like Disney characters.  Mickey didn't forget to cater to his vegetarian guests with "Mickey's Meatless Burger."  For some authentic Italian cuisine, Mickey got a recipe from a real Italian boy and served "Pinocchio's Pizza," a vegetarian pizza.  The pickiest of eaters couldn't say no to the classic PB&J, or rather Mickey's "P and J Handwich."  If the Disney food wasn't enough to get your little ones to eat, Mickey offered some Mouseketeer Meals for the kids, making sure each came with a special prize.

With a Disney themed restaurant, Disney food is only one part of the concept.  You mustn't forget your happy cast members, ready to serve you and explain what all the menu items mean.

(Mickey's Kitchen cast member name tag from Nametagmuseum.com)

Disney food, Disney cast members-what about the theme?  For those of you who remember how the original Disney Stores were designed, then you could surely imagine the great theming that was done for Mickey's Kitchen.  After the Montclair Plaza restaurant opened, writer Laurie Ochoa of the Los Angeles Times reviewed the restaurant on May 4, 1990 and described the whimsical atmosphere of the restaurant: "[Mickey's Kitchen] is something of a suburban Toontown.  Near the front is Winnie-the-Pooh country, with separate yogurt bar; off in a corner is a replica of Tony's Italian restaurant, the setting for the love scene in "Lady and the Tramp." Sing-along videos of Disney hits constantly play on a big-screen TV (the words and a bouncing mouse head appear as subtitles).  You order at a counter that looks like a jazzed-up McDonald's."

With a description like that, I'm ready to hop over to Montclair, CA and order a Goofy Burger and Piglet curly fries and sit with Lady and the Tramp, listening to the happy tunes of Disney music.  As we all know, there are no Mickey's Kitchen's adjoining Disney Stores around the country.  Sadly, the realized Mickey's Kitchen no longer exists, closing 2 years after it opened.  Even sadder still, pictures of the restaurant are difficult to find, though the actual Montclair Plaza Disney Store still stands today. As with a small handful of other Disney Stores, it still retains the old school Disney store look, complete with the animated dioramas and ultra-80s/90s decor.

(Image courtesy of Loren Javier.  Visit Loren Javier's Flikr Account for more classic Disney Store pictures and thousands, no lie, of terrific Disneyland pictures! http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorenjavier/ )

Online images of Mickey's Kitchen are limited to just the store logo as it has been over 20 years since the restaurant's creation.  I did manage to find a collection of paper products, signs, and hats from the restaurant.  Due to copyright laws, I cannot post those images here, but you can look at them yourself in graphic designer Bill Ford's portfolio at http://www.behance.net/gallery/Mickeys-Kitchen-accessories/471360.

The concept of Mickey's Kitchen was an exciting, animated restaurant with healthy food options and was certainly a unique concept for a fast food restaurant at the time.  So what happened?  After both Mickey's Kitchens closed their doors forever, Vicki Vaughan of the Orlando Sentinel reported why.  The company only "barely broke even" with the restaurants and McDonald's was already the leader in restaurants that appealed to kids.  Though the restaurant tested favorably through guest comments and response, the competition was just too fierce.  McDonald's continued to climb the ladder of success, and had not even reached its peak at the time; other fast food chains like Burger King and Wendy's continued to rise as well.  From a business viewpoint, Disney Consumer Products spokesman Chuck Champlin explained that the store was just an experiment and the company was busy opening more Disney Stores around the country and overseas.  20 years ago, there were very few Disney Stores, so I could understand that their priority was to open more Disney Stores, not open a restaurant next to the existing ones. 

Additionally, you have to put yourself back in the culture that was the start of the 1990s.  Fast food restaurants were the ideal place to dine and get take out as the fast-paced, everyone in the family needs to be somewhere lifestyle began; people were excited about feasting on the deliciousness that is greasy burgers, salty fries, thick milkshakes and the like.  There were less concerns of health risks associated with greasy fast foods than there are today and while not many foresaw it, this was only the time when the seeds were merely planted for the childhood obesity epidemic.  From a cultural viewpoint and business viewpoint, not many people would be lining up for some healthy food, even with the Disney theme, especially with all these other popular and established restaurants around.

But what about now?  It's been 20+ years since Disney's "experiment" of healthy fast food.  Times have certainly changed about the health concerns with today's top fast-food restaurants.  Disney had severed its marketing and business ties with McDonald's, taking the restaurant locations out of its theme parks and resorts.  McDonald's had even brought in the healthy fast food concept as part of its menu.  With the classic, original Disney Store we remember and love on its way back into the malls and shopping centers around the world, perhaps we just may see Mickey's Kitchen return.  Especially after more than 20 years, there's a plethora of popular new Disney characters to "add to the menu."  How about Princess Tiana's Gumbo or Flounder's Fish Sticks?  Toss in some of Mulan's Mandarin Orange Salad or Rapunzel's Tower of Tater Tots?  Finally, let's wash it all down with a pint of Flo's "Motor Oil," Hercules' Protein Shake, or maybe Jasmine's Jasmine Tea.  Though whatever the Disney Store decides, I believe the Mickey's Kitchen of healthy fast food concept could work well with today's health-wise population.  I wouldn't be too surprised if the new concept Imagination Park Disney stores welcome Chef Mickey as he reopens his kitchen doors.

(Chef Mickey Image from disneyfoodblog.com)

Research Bibliography:

Hill, Jim. "Monday Mouse Watch: Busting through the berm." JimHillMedia.com. 11 March 2007. http://jimhillmedia.com/editor_in_chief1/b/jim_hill/archive/2007/03/12/monday-mousewatch-busting-through-the-berm.aspx

Lippman, John. "Disney to Put Fast-Food Unit in Deep Freeze." Los Angeles Times. 27, March 1992. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-03-27/business/fi-4639_1_disney-character

Magical Kingdoms Disney Guide. "A brief history of Disney-themed commercial expancions." Asthemouseturns.com. 24 December 2009. http://www.asthemouseturns.com/?p=505

Martin, Richard.  "Disney set to unveil Mickey's Kitchen." Nation's Restaurant News, 5 March 1990. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3190/is_n10_v24/ai_8782013/

Ochoa, Laurie. "Dining with Disneyana at Mickey's Kitchen." Los Angeles Times, 4 May 1990. http://articles.latimes.com/1990-05-04/entertainment/ca-96_1_mickey-mouse

Stevenson, Richard W. "Disney Stores: Magic in Retail?" New York Times, 4 May 1990.

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C0CE3DC1231F937A35756C0A966958260&pagewanted=1

Vaughn, Vicki. "Disney Restaurants To Close After Lackluster Performance." Orlando Sentinel. 28 March 1992. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1992-03-28/business/9203280577_1_walt-disney-disney-stores-variety-of-disney

 

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