Wednesday, September 24, 2014

There must be fifty ways to feed your diner

With apologies to Paul Simon...

"Don't give him a flapjack"

"Get a steak from the Outback"

"Or bring on a bag snack"

"But don't make it free."

"Put on a machine, Gene"

"And fill it with cuisine"

"No attendants that are mean"

"Chow down with the scene"

I just read this blog at Trains Magazine.

Eating in the diner on a train can be a great pleasure. ( )  But, Amtrak loses gobs of money providing it.  They are so bad at it, that Congressman Mica decided to have a hearing about it a while back.  It made good political theater, but it was one more log on the fire for those who would burn Amtrak to the ground.

Can anything be done about it?  Sure.  The problem is that Amtrak is still running their dining car service like it was 1950.  They stock food in a commisary, load it on the diner, cook the food on board, and have a wait staff take orders and serve it.  When the diner staff is not working, they are sleeping on the train.  It's been this way since trains first started crossing the great open spaces between the cities.  Back then, restaurants were few.  People cooked most meals for themselves.  The railroad dining cars needed a "closed loop", vertically integrated system to deliver meals to passengers. It's a very expensive way to do it.

Since 1950, a lot has changed.   Cooking meals at home has wane.  People eat out a lot.  Much if it at fast food joints, but quite a bit at chain restaurants.  The country has sprawled.  The interstate highway network is complete and every 30-60 miles, there's an "interstate" town by an exit complete with a variety of restaurants.  Prepared food used to be a rarity.  Now it is everywhere.

There is a whole industry to support and deliver prepared food.  Everything from large national and regional restaurant wholesale suppliers to restaurant "groups" that own several chains.  For example, did you know that Bloomin Brands owns Outback, Bonefish Grill, Carrabba's, Flemings and Roys?  Darden owns Longhorn, Olive Garden, Season's 52 and Capital Grill, among others.

These people are experts at making money serving prepared food.  If they can do it, so can Amtrak.  There are several ways to go about it:

  1. Concessionaire:  Rent them the space and get out of the way. Menu, prices, etc. all up to them.  They keep the revenue and bear the costs.  This way the only cost to Amtrak is to provide the diner in the train.  They want to house the staff on the train?  Fine.  They can pay for the space.  They want to cycle the staff on and off the train around meal times?  Also fine.
  2. Contract provider:  Set the requirements for the service and bid it out. Write performance measures into the spec with bonuses good performance.  Might wind up with a negative winning bid, that is, Amtrak might have to provide a small subsidy. 
  3. Benchmark:  See what the industry leader business and logistics processes are and copy them. 
In all cases, things would change.  It might mean the food might be cooked at restaurants along the route and delivered to the train, ready to reheat.  It might mean that favorite, branded food would be available. It might mean that food is still cooked on board, but is served like "just another location" in a restaurant chain.   It might mean that staff rotate off to hotels instead of taking up valuable revenue sleeper space.

There are probably more ways to do to.  These are only the ones that have popped into my head.

All of these would be better than the status quo.   And, they might help Amtrak's image, to boot!

Paul Simon might even be able to think of a few more.

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