Generic dining car operation thoughts

Discussion in 'Amtrak Rail Discussion' started by crescent-zephyr, Nov 17, 2019.

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  1. Nov 17, 2019 #1

    crescent-zephyr

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    This is a thread where we can continue to discuss dining car operations and generic thoughts that branch off of those including, but not limited to cash register systems, comparisons to via rail, airlines, and national parks.

    I thought the National parks comparison was particularly interesting.
     
  2. Nov 17, 2019 #2

    Just-Thinking-51

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    Title of thread seem wrong.



    “Generic dining operation.”
     
  3. Nov 17, 2019 #3

    MARC Rider

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    One thing that hasn't been discussed much is that there is a limit on the amount of revenue that can be produced by food service cars on long distance trains. A Superliner train consist of 3 coaches and 2 sleepers has a maximum passenger capacity of about 300 people (72 per coach, 44 per sleeper). Of course, that's only if the train is full. This can be compared with the typical 8-car Northeast Regional, which has a maximum capacity of almost 500 passengers. (72 per coach in 6 coaches and 62 in one business class car,)

    Thus, the most that a dining car could service during a meal period would be 300 meals. Of course that's only if the train is 100% full and everybody eats a meal in the dining car, so in reality, even if the food was excellent and service top-notch, a lot fewer than 300 meals are being served. There are 18 tables of four in a Superliner diner. Somebody with restaurant industry experience should be able to figure out how many customers a restaurant with 18 tables needs to serve to be profitable. The problem is whether there that number of customers riding the train at mealtimes day every day.

    This is why I think the convenience store/fast food model wouldn't work. First, those types of eateries actually require fairly large staffing. I was in w Wawa today, and they had 5 people making food and 2 cashiers. This works for them because the place is on a busy highway with thousands of cars passing by, and hundreds or more stopping by to order food. I can't see how it would work for a train with a limited number of passengers, except it might be a good idea to have a good (if by necessity small) selection of grab and go items that would reduce the time demand on the cafe attendant, allowing for more sales per unit time. (Wawa has a large selection of grab and go stuff.)

    It seems to be that the most cost effective solution would be airline style tray meals, pre-ordered and prepared off the train. These could be ordered from a contractor that is making similar meals for, say, airlines, and thus the marginal additional costs of preparing the relatively few additional meals for Amtrak passengers are relatively low. Of course, there would be problems from getting them from where they are made to the train, and string all the meals for a 3-day trip. Resupply during the trip might be possible, but Amtrak on-time performance can be so bad that the train might not make it to the resupply point in time for the meal. :)
     
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  4. Nov 17, 2019 #4

    jiml

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    I think enroute supply of prepared meals is possible. Amtrak used to do this on the Empire Builder IIRC, with full meals for sale to coach passengers.
     
  5. Nov 18, 2019 #5

    crescent-zephyr

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    Yes! The big sky chicken dinners that were loaded up in Montana. They were around for 10-20 years I think. Also the meals loaded for the Portland sleepers which in my experience were better than the Contemporary Dining.
     
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  6. Nov 18, 2019 #6

    jiml

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    That was the name I couldn't remember. An SCA told me they were "as good" as the chicken in the diner.
     
  7. Nov 18, 2019 #7

    crescent-zephyr

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    I only had one once, and that was back when the empire builder had 7 “express” cars on it and ran 3 times a week. Like 99? I remember it being good though.

    On future trips I didn’t order one, but always got a warm feeling hearing them announced. That was my first cross country western trip in 99. Good memories.
     
  8. Nov 18, 2019 #8

    me_little_me

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    Given that there are airports with long distance trips (justifying real meals in first class at least), resupply should be possible in lots of places if airline meals are served. This is especially true in the Eastern trains. And since airlines manage to provide warmed nuts, hot hand towels tablecloths on the tray tables, cloth napkins and real cutlery and service to those same customers, so could Amtrak provide some semblance of "service".
     
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  9. Nov 18, 2019 #9

    MikefromCrete

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    Congressman Mica didn't write a law micromanaging airlines on their food operations.
     
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  10. Nov 18, 2019 #10

    crescent-zephyr

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    For what it’s worth, the big sky chicken dinners were handled by the lounge car lsa not the diner.

    They proved that the concept of loading on locally catered meals and selling them on-board to passengers from the lounge does work. I’m gonna guess that those big sky dinners cost Amtrak a lot less than each contemporary meal that is being served.
     
  11. Nov 19, 2019 #11

    Qapla

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    I'm not opposed to using plastic cutlery and paper napkins - especially if they of decent weight and include the logo of the establishment ... that way they become something I can take home.
     
  12. Nov 19, 2019 #12

    RSG

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    As I'm sure you'll remember, Amtrak had a lot of those things not so very long ago. Some were very labor intensive, such as the wrapping of tableware setups, which the diner car staff used to do in their downtime between meal service. When the food-and-beverage operations were reexamined after the congressional mandate, I'll bet that those remaining things Amtrak used to have were the first to be cut, because of their labor intensive nature, but also because of the added costs. I do know that Aramark, the primary vendor for Amtrak, doesn't provide anything for free. I would imagine that the linen service invoices were reduced dramatically after cloth napkins and tablecloths were eliminated. (If the bean counters could somehow eliminate bed linens and towel service, I'm pretty sure they would, as that has to be the next largest replenishable expense.)

    As for the resupply issue, that sounds like a good idea but in reality is probably trickier to accomplish. Most of the foodservice vendors for the airlines are near the airports where the customers they serve are located. That includes the commercial kitchens where the meals are prepared. Most airports today are located far from city centers while most train stations are in the city centers. That means there would have to be some way of getting the product from near the airport (and on-time and in the right quantity and quality level) or else having a commercial kitchen located near downtown. That's not to say it can't be done, but the current logistics favor the airlines and puts trains at a disadvantage.
     
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  13. Nov 25, 2019 #13

    crescent-zephyr

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    so dinner train, Ed Ellis Pullman, via rail, Alaska rail... anyone have any comparisons they would like to make?
     
  14. Nov 25, 2019 #14

    pennyk

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    I like the food on the Canadian better than that on Amtrak traditional dining, but I like Amtrak traditional dining better than the food on the Ocean (too few choices). I thought the food (and beer) on Alaska Railroad was great.
     
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  15. Nov 25, 2019 #15

    jiml

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    I'd rate as following:
    1. The Canadian
    2. Most good dinner trains
    3. Amtrak western routes, summed up with one word - steak
    4. Other VIA long-distance, including the Ocean
    5. VIA 1 corridor
    6. Amtrak Acela

    The last 2 are really close depending on time of day and what's being served. I have yet to sample contemporary/flexible dining, but from the reviews it doesn't look like I'll need to retype the complete list. I didn't include any European trains - there are very few dining cars anyway.
     
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  16. Nov 25, 2019 #16

    TiBike

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    A good comparison is the cafe service on the Pacific Surfliner and the Coast Starlight. You can get a salad or a fairly healthy sandwich, excellent craft beer and pretty good California wine on the Surfliner. The Capitol Corridor and San Joaquins have similar fare. The Starlight's cafe has greasy, highly processed food with high fat and chemical content. The wine is a step down and the beer is mostly bland and unimaginative. The exception is the Stone IPA that's sometimes available and sometimes not.

    The trains share the same commissaries so there's no logistical explanation, at least in California (and, I'd speculate, in the Pacific Northwest – food and beer standards are as high there, and their wines aren't completely undrinkable :)).
     
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  17. Nov 25, 2019 #17

    crescent-zephyr

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    Acela is that low on the list? I’ve never ridden 1st class Acela but always thought it would be decent.
     
  18. Nov 25, 2019 #18

    Skyline

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    I'm surprised real cutlery (assume stainless steel or other similar) is provided on airplanes in this post 9/11 world. I don't fly, but I have read about the TSA processing which includes body and luggage searches, shoes off, etc. Would they really supply pax with hard, deadly knives after all that?
     
  19. Nov 25, 2019 #19

    crescent-zephyr

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    It's like a butter knife. No different than the knives that are available within the secure zone of airports at sit down restaurants.

    But I can confirm that both Delta and American uses "real" silverware in domestic first class.
     
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  20. Nov 25, 2019 #20

    jis

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    Yeah. Table knives have been part of the cutlery provided in first class at least on all three legacy carriers in the US for several years now. No problem.
     
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  21. Nov 25, 2019 #21

    MARC Rider

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    Most of the entrees that I've had on Acela First Class are decent, some are better than others, but the total meal itself is a bit skimpy, with no salad, small portions of vegetables, and usually a packaged dessert, similar to the brownie served in flex dining. The totally open bar (and hefty hard liquor pours) makes up for it a bit, if you like to drink alcoholic beverages and you're not planning to drive when you arrive at your destination.
     
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  22. Nov 25, 2019 #22

    MARC Rider

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    The states who support the state-supported trains can make decisions abut food service, because they are paying for it. In fact, I believe on the Downeaster, the cafe car attendants aren't even Amtrak employees.

    But that still begs the question of why the cafe car fare on the Northeast Regional and Acela, which are not state-supported, is far better than than what I saw being served on the Texas Eagle, Cardinal, and Capitol Limited.
     
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  23. Nov 25, 2019 #23

    Qapla

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    Since I do not fly I cannot verify this --- but, while I can accept that they may use actual metal flatware - I somehow doubt that is is "real silverware". Flatware made of silver is hard to keep polished and the value of it would seem to make it a target for "souvenirs".

    Now, stainless flatware I can understand ... durable, generic, easy to wash and hard to damage.
     
  24. Nov 25, 2019 #24

    crescent-zephyr

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    That’s why I used the quotes “real”
     
  25. Nov 25, 2019 #25

    MARC Rider

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    Alaska Railroad has two classes, which have different dining facilities. Did you travel first class or "Adventure Class" (which is what they call coach)? Also, don't they have some trains where the on-board service is run by cruise lines and such?

    I would think the experience of the Alaska Railroad would be highly relevant, as they are a publicly-owned entity (owned by the State of Alaska), just like Amtrak and VIA. Looking at the financials of their food service might be illuminating. On the other hand, their website just says that they have dining service on some of the trains, it doesn't provide menus, and I've never heard anybody review the food.
     

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