Happening Now

A Chef’s View

August 4, 2020

Funding, Logistics, Preparation and Inspiration Can Fix Dining-Car Woes

By Madi Butler

Photo Credit: Joe Aiello

It’s easy to criticize the state of the Amtrak dining car, and another thing entirely to work on solutions that are feasible, timely, and inclusive. Over my past year with RPA and in my decade of Hospitality consulting experience before that, I have heard myriad opinions on food service in transit. Truth is, there is no one correct answer for all types of service. Instead, each route should have its own appropriate services and goods based on needs. The long and short of it is that regardless of feeling, nostalgia, or critique -- the data shows there is room for improvement and clear-cut ways to simultaneously reinvigorate the dining and cafe cars and provide a memorable service.

If Amtrak uses and welcomes the feedback given freely by a plethora of riders from all walks of life, especially those valid critiques of the promised-to-be-temporary national contemporary menu, the railroad can give Food & Beverage the overhaul it deserves even if it must be housed in existing rolling stock. We are all well aware of the challenges surrounding on-board layouts, time, and logistics. These hurdles have not drastically changed since Amtrak’s inception. But, the technology we can use to overcome them has indeed changed for the better. So long as we enable the means to enact these methods, we can achieve our mission.

Today there’s a great opportunity to make these changes, thanks to the advancement of the Moving Forward / INVEST in America Act and repeal of the Mica Amendment’s contradictory stranglehold on what these services could be. My commentary is as much a response to the sensationalist dining-car coverage of late as it is a brief overview of last year's travel, research, surveys, working group feedback, and member testimony. When the time comes I would like to publish my research and accompanying Advocate’s Playbook for the association at large.

Much depends on the prospective funding Congress can assure our national rail provider. I do want to clarify that my primary concern is the continuation of daily National Network service, but that priority is only as valid as the services offered. As a Rail Passengers Association member, intern, and organizer I also want to be explicitly clear that I will always advocate for every passenger’s right to healthy, fresh, allergen-free food on board. The packaging may vary, but our well-being must be a priority for the teams on board that feed us, as well as those higher up who decide how we are fed.

It’s true that removing the restrictions of the often-cursed Mica Amendment could allow F&B to function in a way more akin to that in hotels, cruise lines, and large capacity venues. That does not inherently mean a return to white gloves and linens is reasonable, nor even that this is what the majority of frequent long-distance passengers want. Today our times require adaptability and sustainability. There needs to be a reasonable middle ground between the two service patterns we see on the National Network as the needs of Millenials, Boomers, and everyone in between must all be met.

I don’t know a soul my age who would sign off on the current menu situation and I am exhausted by the constant blaming of a generation that can rarely afford non-coach tickets to begin with. Let’s try to aim for something between a whole swordfish and a tuna sandwich. Surely this perceived dichotomy will do nothing but encourage infighting.

One way to create a solution here is predetermining what meals or snacks each passenger has on board. Removing the limitations on coach passengers’ access to the dining car by allowing all passengers purchasing tickets more than 1 week in advance to pre-select a meal with ticket purchase through app or by phone would be monumental in reducing food waste and labor associated costs. Of course there is the argument that on-time performance will affect dinner being served in a timely fashion. I think we can all agree that on time performance is crucial to the longevity of passenger rail and those conversations should take precedence over the dining car issue. As there are many moving parts to this, it is important to maintain perspective in triaging the concerns we can directly alleviate as an Association and those we will need to build a larger base of allies to overcome.

However, I do not believe it is too much to ask Amtrak’s web and app developers to create a few checkboxes where one could indicate if they required kosher, vegan, halal, or gluten free meals and receive an accompanying menu showing what ingredients are in the food they will eat on board. This is something Zerocater, Doordash, Caviar, and other b2b / b2bc / b2c apps have done for years.

For me this is not theoretical: while providing beta and high profile client support with catering apps in Austin TX, I worked with small teams of programmers to use scalable solutions to similar problems as we see with the Amtrak online experience. To me, the passenger’s journey begins from the call or login when they order tickets. By changing this preliminary impression and investing up front in an accessible web platform as well as retaining the call center staff to assist those who can not go online, we would see a lasting change in passenger impressions.

Photo Credit: Madi Butler

As many of you know, during my Summer By Rail travels, I spent time in the Amtrak Test Kitchen sampling a portion of what is now the contemporary menu. There is obviously plenty to critique in regards to quality control on board and I do completely understand the frustrations of those taking long trips expected to sustain on the lackluster entrees for multiple days. The simple fact is, COVID or not, the execution here leaves much to be desired. There are ways to flash-freeze, dehydrate, can and preserve foods without insane amounts of salt. There are methods of updating point-of-sale (POS) on board and running better analytics. The cardboard box with a wad of foil on top is not what I saw in the Test Kitchen and not what folks on board were promised.

Photo Credit: Joe Aiello

A huge point of contention for me as a trained Chef is in fact the menu execution itself. This is a crucial bit of feedback I want to illuminate after having ridden the City of New Orleans last summer pre-contemporary as well as this January post-contemporary. After a 5-hour host rail delay in scenic Greenwood, MS I was looking forward to finally seeing the sleek trays and reusable but modern plating of the contemporary menu in the wild. What I witnessed at the Test Kitchen versus what was served to me on board were so vastly different in the levels of execution I was immediately filled with both frustration and empathy. I had taken much of the anecdotal feedback I had received with a grain of salt, however that pales in comparison to the amount of sodium I ingested in that single sitting.

Photo Credit: Joe Aiello

While there needs to be quality control on Amtrak’s end, there is obviously a lack of quality control with the subcontracted providers they are using. Where is on-board service protocol enforcement? We need transparent metrics and protocols developed by qualified passenger advocates, on-board crew, and members of the F&B industry with relevant national catering logistics experience, not vague oversight from those stemming from the airline industry. In the post-COVID race to get folks on trains instead of planes, this airline-level food does not help our cause.

There is a fine line between providing things which are palatable and exciting and plates that are not overly bold or alienating to less-adventurous eaters. A balance of signature Amtrak items (French Toast, steak, chocolate cake, etc.) and a little life breathed into each menu would do wonders for new customers and create comfort for those returning. Each route should have its own menu with signature overlapping items. Anyone who has taken multiple long-distance trips last year can attest to the repetition of the menu becoming monotonous. How fun would it be to eat favorites that are a homage to the cities en-route?

A variety of grains, thick savory cuts of meat, fresh vegetables, and sauces that inspire can be created at a reasonable cost to both Amtrak and the passenger. This is not too much to expect. We should not be hung up on the fact that food is frozen but rather what is frozen and are there not other shelf-stable items we could be using in more efficient ways. A vast majority of the food consumed in this country is at some point frozen. The way it’s cooked determines whether it tastes of TV dinner or fresh from the oven. Operating protocols for onboard preparation and standards still need to be uniform across the country regardless of menu.

There is missed opportunity in not playing up the novelty and excitement of rail travel in food presentation and menu execution. There is a perception of value lacking. Where there could be whimsy and nostalgia, there is instead a vacuum.

Credit: Rail Passengers Association

It takes some culinary background to create a menu that serves all, but not a challenge any qualified chef would balk at so long as the folks upstairs choose to hear the needs of their passengers, constituents, and customers and make room for these changes to be possible. Playing into the thematics of the train itself by offering a menu with an influence representing the regions it traverses was one of the most highly regarded moves of Amtrak’s culinary heyday. Why are we not paying homage to that now? In last year’s poll of frequently traveling Amtrak regulars, over 77% of people said they did not want boxed meals and 92% agree all passengers regardless of class should have access to a sit-down meal.

Credit: Rail Passengers Association

To allow things to continue in their current state is not only detrimental to Amtrak reaching a break even again by FY 23, it will continue to deter ridership and render many services no longer competitive as a means of long-distance travel. If we want the National Network to be an attractive method of long-distance travel and the NEC to remain a relevant commuter service model, people have to be cared for better. The wow factor is lacking in ways that transcend taste alone. Again, customer retention requires us to look into the impact of the total experience and without clear analytics and measurable levels of customer satisfaction, any statements made about reduction of service or on board menu changes are speculative at best and counter productive at worst.

With clear metrics created by a panel of invested participants whose qualifications and previous experience hold relevance to the task at hand and real commitment to chef-led in-kitchen R&D, the revival of a true on board experience is possible. The recipe is part logistics, part execution, part inspiration, part cost, part feasibility but it’s nothing the right team can’t cook up. Luckily, we are all on the same team and I will be sure that we have the platforms at hand to make it easy to make our collective voice heard.

When we look at food served on board and at stations throughout Europe and Asia, we often see healthy well balanced meals served in reusable or biodegradable containers yet still it is fresh food and of a better perceived quality than what we have. The standards we need to meet can only be reached if Congress chooses to support what their passenger constituents advocate for.

That means we need to be reaching out to their offices en masse. We need to go for quantity, and draw attention in large numbers to this historic opportunity to forever improve dining service and free Amtrak F&B from Mica. This is the time for our strategic collective voice to speak louder in supporting these developments we so desperately need for America’s rail service to remain competitive in the times to come. It would be my honor to help champion this cause and I would be grateful to commit my time and skill set to help turn on-board dining into the kind of memorable experience so many rail enthusiasts embrace.

Passing the TRAINS Act and incorporating a complete dining overhaul not only secures the future of our rails, it honors our history. We need to push to update on board technology while respecting the legacy we have been given. Over almost 50 years we have seen Amtrak F&B change and change again. This time, let’s create change the passenger supports. With the radical transitions many industries are experiencing in their “new normal,” there are simultaneously tight budgets and big room for drastic improvement. If that isn’t the quintessential Millennial’s moment to shine, I don’t know what is.

To donate to the Rail Passengers Association -- please click here.