Dieter Hannig, who is credited with changing the face of restaurants and dining at Walt Disney World as the vice president of the food and beverage division, has announced he is leaving the company. Hannig is one of the executives who stepped forward to volunteer for a buyout package from Disney.
He and his wife, Ursula, are relocating to Panama where they will foster two passions: organic gardening and a yoga retreat called Casa Aleenta. “Casa Aleenta reflects the wonders of the rich natural environment and offers tranquility and a peaceful balance,” Hannig said in a memo.
Hannig didn’t just change dining at Disney, his approach helped elevate the quality of other restaurants throughout Central Florida.
You can trace the renaissance back to about 1992 when Hannig did something revolutionary for a corporation the size of Walt Disney World: he allowed the executive chefs and general managers at Disney’s top-tier dining establishments to run the restaurants as if they owned them.
“It really opened the doors to allow us to be more creative and be more competitive,” Scott Hunnel, executive chef at Victoria & Albert’s, said last year, “not just in Orlando but with the rest of the country and the rest of the world.”
Before Hannig gave the chefs more freedom, said Hunnel, even a simple menu change had to be approved by a committee. That sort of structure made the concept of having a menu driven by the availability of market-fresh produce all but impossible.
Hannig said he recognized something was missing from some of the Disney restaurants. The full-service dining establishments always benefited from a company with the resources to decorate a restaurant and give it fine appointments. “But,” he said, “you walk into a room and there’s no soul.” The chefs and the people running the front of the house are the key to that soul.
Soon Victoria & Albert’s became a destination restaurant. And the success of the program led the way for California Grill, Flying Fish Café, Citricos and other Disney restaurants to operate in the same way.
And when those restaurants became dining destinations for Central Floridians, not just tourists, it raised the bar for local restaurants.
Hannig came to Walt Disney World from Marne la Valley, France, in 1988. He leaves the company with the keys to keeping the dining program on a road to further national recognition. Whether the company will continue that path — or even if it can in this economy — remains to be seen.