Amtrak Diner and Food Service Discussion

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Bob Roberts
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Bob Roberts » Wed Feb 03, 2016 8:41 pm

I'll offer one (and only one) data point.

Next week I have a trip from CLT to NYP on the Crescent. I am not a big fan of the diner on 'short' trips like this, Getting on in the middle of the night means I'll likely sleep through breakfast and I have late lunch plans in NYC. I would have really benefitted from a cheaper dinerless booking in this case. (Sleeper space out of CLT is never cheap due to the schedule in both directions)

I also have a CLT Tampa trip planned, being an introvert and solo traveller I am not a fan of the conversation required for polite dining in community seating. Given that I'll happily BYOF and spend some money in the cafe on the Silver Starvation.

I am also a fan of booking sleeper space for long day trips, I have done so from Minneapolis to Chicago, Oakland to LA, NOL to San Antonio and KC to Chicago. I naver saw the diner on any of these trips and still felt like it was money well spent. But if an even cheaper day sleeper option were available I would jump on it. Despite that, eating and sitting in the Pacific Parlor Car on a beautiful day remains an Amtrak highlight for me.

Despite all that, I could not imagine a long trip (Chicago - West Coast) without a diner.

Long story short, I am very pleased that I have a cheaper sleeper option to Florida, from my perspective The Silver Starvation is a welcome amenity. An Empire Dieter, not so much.

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Rockingham Racer
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Rockingham Racer » Thu Feb 04, 2016 7:12 am

Why not do what VIA does? Establish two levels of sleeper tickets: "sleeper" and "sleeper plus", the latter of which includes meals? Or has this been discussed already?

Gilbert B Norman
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Gilbert B Norman » Thu Feb 04, 2016 8:11 am

The Bob Johnston article regarding Amtrak Food and Beverage service in March TRAINS is worth anyone's while.

Bob Roberts
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Bob Roberts » Thu Feb 04, 2016 8:18 am

Rockingham Racer wrote:Why not do what VIA does? Establish two levels of sleeper tickets: "sleeper" and "sleeper plus", the latter of which includes meals? Or has this been discussed already?
On the Ocean (I can't speak to the Canadian) Via uses catered meals (e.g. Airline style) meals rather than cooked on board, so fewer 'diner' users is not an economic problem (they just load fewer meals). The absence of an onboard chef and any diner staff other than a server means they can some close to balancing costs and revenues no matter how many pay for meals (but the food is worse). If Amtrak maintained their fully staffed diners, but allowed some riders to not prepay for meals then diner costs stay high but revenue would fall.

Amtrak7
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Amtrak7 » Thu Feb 04, 2016 8:49 am

Rockingham Racer wrote:Why not do what VIA does? Establish two levels of sleeper tickets: "sleeper" and "sleeper plus", the latter of which includes meals? Or has this been discussed already?
VIA abolished this last fall, now all sleeping car tickets are "Sleeper Plus" prices and perks.

Arlington
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Arlington » Thu Feb 04, 2016 8:53 am

Bob Roberts wrote:Long story short, I am very pleased that I have a cheaper sleeper option to Florida, from my perspective The Silver Starvation is a welcome amenity. An Empire Dieter, not so much.
Thanks for putting a name and a story to the people who are responding well to the private-room-at-lower-cost part of diner removal.
"Trying to solve congestion by making roadways wider is like trying to solve obesity by buying bigger pants."--Charles Marohn

Arborwayfan
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Arborwayfan » Thu Feb 04, 2016 10:23 am

I traveled Chi-SLC on the California Zephyr around Christmas and noticed something I have noticed at other times in the last few years: several tables being used as staging areas instead of for seating. IIRC there were three tables on each side being used as storage for salad dressing, rolls, and similar supplies. I also noticed that the car seemed short-staffed, in the sense that there were fewer waiters than I was used to and they seemed to be struggling to keep up even just in taking the orders, so maybe skipping six tables out of what, sixteen total? was a way to cope with being short staffed either because of crew shortages or because of new labor policies. But I still wonder about the economics of hauling a huge, expensive mobile restaurant and not using all the tables. Especially at lunch, when they aren't serving 25 dollar steaks, it seems like it would make sense to have as many tables as possible and really push diner service to the coach passengers.

What is it that makes diners lose money? Paying decent wages (because those are good union jobs, not like most waitstaff on land)? Maintaining and hauling the car? Stocking the car with food (the cost of moving fairly small amounts of food every day)? Accounting division of the sleeper fares? Or not having enough space and enough seatings?

I always assumed they wanted to maximize revenue per table, and therefore put strangers together and didn't encourage people to come in and just buy dessert, but if they can spare six tables in the car, why not let more people in for partial meals? (PUtting strangers together is a fun thing.)

Is the reason there are restricted hours for each meal that the tight space in the kitchen needs time to be cleaned up from one meal and prepared for the next? Or do the waiters get a well-deserved rest in that time? Or is it just habit. Most restaurants serve continuously, and seem glad to have people come in during the slack times. Why not serve continuously, so that the early risers can each breakfast at 6 and lunch and 10:30 if they want to, while the late risers can have breakfast until 10 and lunch at 3 if they want to? Or have a "dessert and drinks only" time from 3 to 5, for coach pax who don't want to buy a whole meal but want a little something in a classyish setting?

Related to this, I often wonder why a diner couldn't pay on short-distance trains that run at mealtimes. Apparently Iowa Pacific thinks they can do this on the Hoosier State (I can't imagine my stingy legislature is subsidizing the food); maybe that's just because they're going to pay the staff less, but consider: A 2-hour morning train ride is a perfect place for a decent diner breakfast for someone in a hurry to a meeting once they get off the train; I did it a lot on the City of NO when I lived in Champaign and went to Chicago, and I think quite a few people did the same. Likewise, a 2-hour ride at lunch time and a 2-hour ride at dinner time would be perfect places for decent diner meals for people in a hurry, and the notion that you could eat on the way would seem like an advantage over driving. Now, the City offered that because it's a LD train. Imagine that on a SD train, where carrying enough food for the whole trip would be no trouble, where the staff could sleep at home or in hotels, not in a costly crew dorm, and where there would be more trains stocking food each day to share the fixed costs of food deliveries, diner repairs, etc.

And if the problem is the cost of the waiters and cooks, they why not at least have an arrangement with some local Panera to stock fresh sandwiches and such instead of lunchable-type stuff. (OK, unpredictable turnover favors packaged foods, I guess.) Isn't this actually kind of what the California bistros are?

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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Amtrak7 » Thu Feb 04, 2016 10:50 am

The Trains Magazine article makes it sound like the Coast Starlight at seat pilot is a success, with one crew managing to sell 256 in a round trip.

It also mentions a trial of lower-cost items on the Lake Shore Limited, some of which was delivered to seats. It seems the constraining factor is space in the dining car (and the socializing/experience aspect doesn't help speed turnover), and a lot could be saved if meals were to be eaten at seats/in rooms.

Arlington
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Arlington » Thu Feb 04, 2016 11:18 am

Arborwayfan wrote:What is it that makes diners lose money? Paying decent wages (because those are good union jobs, not like most waitstaff on land)? Maintaining and hauling the car? Stocking the car with food (the cost of moving fairly small amounts of food every day)? Accounting division of the sleeper fares? Or not having enough space and enough seatings?
It isn't allocation of sleeper fares: as we've learned from the Star, on some routes costs of the diner exceeds the total Sleeper revenues, and on others amounts to essentially-all of the premium over coach (pay for your share of the diner ops and your upgrade from coach to a room is free)

It is partially the high cost of the labor and partially the expectation of what a burger or breakfast sandwich "should" cost is set by places (1) with lower wages (2) higher volumes and (3) an "unlimited" audience of foot traffic and drive-thru to whom they can appeal.

It really is just that no other carrier has this pay-once, sit-twice, big-kitchen, all-fresh cost structure [OK, cruise ships do, but i suspect their wages are lower and their productivity is higher].

Even airlines with private cabins in international first class (with tickets costing2x to 10x more than Amtrak, depending on what class you buy or upgrade from) make you sit at your seat/pod/room during the meal,(at best you'll see a visitor's jumpseat or a teensy stand-up bar) and are extremely selective in providing flourishes of "prepared" on board (chocolate chip cookies, vegtable garnishes, omlettes from pre-scrambled egg liquid) that give a "made fresh" feel to meals that are actually 95% rewarmed.
"Trying to solve congestion by making roadways wider is like trying to solve obesity by buying bigger pants."--Charles Marohn

JimBoylan
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by JimBoylan » Thu Feb 04, 2016 3:31 pm

There have been Amtrak Route Improvement studies and recommendations under various names that have suggested increasing the hours that diners (and cafe cars) serve meals, reducing the amount of time that the help spends on accounting and inventory, and trying to push more sales at coach passengers. None of these ideas seem to have the permission of the employees. For instance, they are allowed a certain amount of paid time free from handling meals to take inventory, but if the time needed for this chore is reduce by more modern methods like bar code scanners or computers, the now excess time can only be used for rest or early quit, not for serving more meals.

Arlington
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Arlington » Thu Feb 04, 2016 3:45 pm

JimBoylan wrote:None of these ideas seem to have the permission of the employees. For instance, they are allowed a certain amount of paid time free from handling meals to take inventory, but if the time needed for this chore is reduce by more modern methods like bar code scanners or computers, the now excess time can only be used for rest or early quit, not for serving more meals.
Has that really been the response? So sad (so beyond regular sad that I'd like to know where you heard this, if you can elaborate). If people-powered productivity is that hard to come by, you can see where the only alternative is to skip right to vend-o-mats and snack carts.
"Trying to solve congestion by making roadways wider is like trying to solve obesity by buying bigger pants."--Charles Marohn

jp1822
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by jp1822 » Fri Feb 05, 2016 12:07 am

My opinion - with an Amtrak train that carries a diner - the only way that you can try to improve the losses or at least not make them worse is:

- Keep the Diner open as long as possible for meal times.
- Don't close the diner till 30 minutes outside final stop and OPEN the diner for a full dinner when departing Chicago/LA (e.g. serve dinner eastbound on Lake Shore Limited, expand hours and selection of Texas Eagle for breakfast and lunch, expand dinner options for City of New Orleans departing and arriving Chicago). Amtrak also needs to realize they have connecting passengers at NYC and Chicago. You get off of a late arriving CA Zephyr and onto an on-time departing Lake Shore Limited and some people have not had a full meal since 12 noon and its now 9:30 pm. Same could happen in NYC for folks who need to connect to a commuter train out of NYC or an Amtrak train to Philly.
- Prepaid meal cards

**I've yet to hear ONE good argument as to why the diner should NOT be open for a full meal on departing LA on the Southwest Chief, the Lake Shore Limited from Chicago, the City of New Orleans from Chicago. The crew and food is already onboard. Conversely, why not serve full breakfast in arriving on the City of New Orleans to Chicago or regular meal times for arrival on the Texas Eagle. Crew is onboard and so is the food.

I would hope that: Total Food Sales minus Cost of Food Sales equals a positive gross profit. The staff is a fixed cost on the train - so let's not consider that yet. And frankly because the staff is a fixed cost, Amtrak needs to service as many meals as possible - coach and sleeper.

What Amtrak is essentially doing by limiting meal service right now, is indirectly increasing the price of a sleeping car. They need to attract coach passengers BACK to the dinner. Better food or what not, as long as the premise above is positive gross profit.

Wages are going to make the Diner have a loss because Amtrak has unions to deal with on the Onboard Service front. All for breaks for the onboard service staff and giving them a bed overnight in the crew car, but I think the Dining Crew needs to have hours similar to the LSA in the café car.

How to maximize sales (diner in constant motion - within reason) and get people to say "what a great meal I just had on the train." This is what used to be said on railroads of the past, even though their diner ran at a loss too.

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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by AgentSkelly » Fri Feb 05, 2016 5:58 am

I know from talking to a few cafe car attendants on the Cascades (which apparently is one of the few routes with food sales in the green), they mentioned that the inventory procedure could be eliminated if they went to vendor managed inventory...
New Westminster to Amtrak 516, whats up with the extra 4 axles, over?

Arborwayfan
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Arborwayfan » Fri Feb 05, 2016 9:01 am

City of New Orleans used to serve dinner SB and breakfast into Chicago. I ate breakfast many times in coach; it was a great part of the trip. And dinner a couple of times SB. That was 15+ years ago. At some point I think they shifted to only offering dinner to sleeper passengers. Have they now stopped that, too? A few years back I had breakfast NB, and they served until Homewood as usual. Has that now stopped, or is the breakfast limited menu?

Arlington
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Re: Diner Economics (Split from Viewliner 8400 thread)

Post by Arlington » Fri Feb 05, 2016 10:46 am

AgentSkelly wrote:I know from talking to a few cafe car attendants on the Cascades (which apparently is one of the few routes with food sales in the green), they mentioned that the inventory procedure could be eliminated if they went to vendor managed inventory...
But then the question is whether the time saved would actually turn into food-service time (which folks here hope would turn into "revenue" time) or whether it turns into something else (like a non-serving break, as Jim Boylan suggests the rules say it would)

And then it is still a serious question of whether, even if open those longer hours, the diner could ever charge high-enough "walk up" prices to pay for the additional food and labor. There's an unstated assumption that what's wrong with the diner are its fixed costs (and that food itself is profitable, if Amtrak could only sell more of it). We'd like to think so, wouldn't we?

If one choice choice is keeping both a Cafe and a Diner open and trying to generally sell more $ worth of food, surely another surer-bet is removing the diner entirely and trying to make the Cafe busier and higher-ticket. An upgraded, busier Cafe seems the surer bet because it starts with all the right elements of a "scalable" business model: lower labor costs (lower staff, less labor in each item), and standardized items.

Adding frills/fanciness/better stuff/higher-margins/more sales to the low-cost Cafe is probably a more doable plan than trying to strip down, speed up, or scale up the Diner. That's the lesson of the Innovator's Dilemma,
- the "weak" hydraulic digger "grows up" to destroy the steam shovel
- the tiny, bare bones japanese cars (think 1978 Civic or Corolla) grows up to be luxury cars (but GM & Germans can never quite "scale down")
- the simple McDonalds (hamburger or cheesburger) grows up to be a broad menu restuarant (but few restaurants ever successfully stripped down to compete with McDonalds)
"Trying to solve congestion by making roadways wider is like trying to solve obesity by buying bigger pants."--Charles Marohn

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