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Analysis: What’s next for Amtrak’s ‘traditional’ dining

By Bob Johnston | July 27, 2021

Renewed customer focus is welcomed by servers. Can it be expanded?

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Plate of food on linen table cloth next to window of passenger car
Plate of food on linen table cloth next to window of passenger car
Atlantic salmon is served on a Southwest Chief dining car table adorned with fresh flowers. (Bob Johnston)

Second of two parts. Part One is here.

CHICAGO — An expanded menu selection and increased emphasis on food quality and preparation aren’t the only changes in Amtrak’s reinvention of dining car service on five western long-distance trains this summer.

“They have made some really good choices,” observes Michael Provost, a Los Angeles-based server on a recent Southwest Chief departure from Chicago. “The desserts are top quality; we’ve got sauces to decorate the flourless chocolate torte and cheesecake, and the carrot cake has edible flowers on top of whipped cream. Before they used to say the food was good when finishing a meal, but now you hear, ‘This is really delicious.’”

Provost and Lead Service Attendant Christy McDuffy have also seen a sharp uptick in alcoholic beverage sales under the new format, which has jettisoned inexpensive Barefoot wine in single-serve plastic bottles in favor of top-shelf spirits for mixed drinks and wines sold by the bottle or glass.

“More people are choosing to buy a cocktail with dinner, and they are more likely to order a second drink even though the first one is free,” says Provost. McDuffy adds, “The prices went down too, so it’s better for the customer.”

The two split serving duties, with each one handling one half of the Superliner diner, with all but one table on each side used to accommodate four dinner seatings on this trip. Meals served on tables with linen and fresh flowers will soon feature custom-made china, now on order. It will replace disposable plastic dishes that had been stored when restaurant-style service was dropped in 2020.

A gulf between experiences in east and west

Man moving salad from mixing bowl to dish
Food specialist Brian Garrigues tosses salads to order on the Southwest Chief. Amtrak’s new menu is more labor-intensive than previous iterations of “traditional” dining. (Bob Johnston)

This reinvented dining service has enhanced the onboard experience for sleeping car travelers aboard the Chief and four other Superliner-equipped long-distance trains operating west of Chicago. A glaring omission is the Texas Eagle, whose passengers can potentially spend as much time traveling as those riding the Coast Starlight. When the train returned to daily operation in June, management significantly downgraded the Eagle by shelving its Sightseer Lounge car; a third coach, operating Chicago-San Antonio; and a transition sleeper to house Amtrak personnel. That car would provide up to eight additional roomettes for sale instead of subtracting four or five for employees from the regular sleeper.

The thoughtful menu and presentation upgrades in the west have also introduced a wider gulf between the western experience and other Amtrak overnighters, which continue to offer the same limited meals-in-a-bowl lunch and dinner options, as well as  a crusty microwaved breakfast omelet.

Again, passengers riding eastern trains like the Crescent and Florida-bound Silver Star and Silver Meteor could be onboard for as many as five or six meal periods, and pay per-mile sleeping-car prices as hefty as those out west. And a food-service upgrade could boost the fortunes of the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, and City of New Orleans by giving travelers in some of the country’s top population centers more incentive to ride.    

What about coach passengers?

Table with white linen tablecloth and four place settings
A table on the Empire Builder awaits customers on June 27, 2021. Soon trains will feature new china as well as the linen tablecloths. (Andrew Selden)

Allowing coach passengers to purchase meals may be more difficult to achieve with the current menu without more kitchen and serving staff to speed table turnover. Prices would have to be added to the menu, along with some less labor-intensive selections sold at lower costs, but continuing to take reservations onboard would maintain sleeping car priority. Most importantly, attracting coach travelers pulls in more cash, since with the exception of alcohol sales, sleeping-car customers paid for food when they bought tickets.

Robert Jordan, Amtrak’s vice president of operations and customer service, explained the decision factors to at a June media event in Chicago [see “Amtrak plans to offer dining car service to coach passengers …,” Trains News Wire June 15, 2021]. The company, he said, wanted to gauge passenger reaction to the menu before proceeding. He also said it was possible service for coach passengers would be on a take-out or delivery basis.

Well, the returns are in. As Southwest Chief Chef Frank Villasenor explains while the first orders for the 5 p.m. Chief seating cascade down the chute from upstairs, “We are getting a lot of good feedback. People are trying everything on the menu and enjoy coming into the dining car — even on the third day — saying they love the food.”

That kind of a ringing endorsement from customers, which portends good word-of-mouth and repeat business, should prompt management to budget for menu and service expansion to more trains and coach clientele in the 2022 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2021. The improvements so far have been worth the wait.

14 thoughts on “Analysis: What’s next for Amtrak’s ‘traditional’ dining

  1. Shouldn’t be that hard to come up with a menu with prices and affordable selections. It’s not like they’re re-inventing the wheel they’re just bring back food which was plentiful on trains for over a hundred years. Add a steward for seating guests and have designated times available when boarding for those longer distance travelers. I’m happy with a greasy cheeseburger than a fancy steak, nothing fancy just fresh.

  2. I think there is another element that hasn’t been examined here. My last 2 sleeping car trips on the Coast Starlight (pre-COVID) were very disappointing from a meal perspective. Breakfast hours are supposed to b 6am-9am. My wife and I arrived in the diner about 8am on both these trips and were informed that the French Toast was sold out along with most everything else. The staff was able to dig up a few potato’s, some bacon and toast for us, but it was obvious that the commissary was assigning the bare minimum of food to be loaded on the train. You might say that this might be an expected outcome during the busy season, but the last trip was in mid-January. Perhaps Mr. Johnston could also look into whether Amtrak has changed its policies on how much food is actually put on the trains and whether they are running out before everyone is served.

  3. I’m a fan of long distance Amtrak, but want decent meal service if I’m paying for sleeping car space. I’m also willing to pay a price if I’m traveling coach. I realize they need to get more service staff, but please get it done!

  4. It’s good to know that Amtrak F&B is starting from scratch after sinking to the bottom. I wouldn’t admit in a public forum that I’m such a cheapskate I even know what the discontinued brand of “affordable” wine (story above) tastes like. In fact I have drunk that bottom-end swill and no, its not fit for first class passengers. Good riddance!

    I’m no wine expert but I know there’s different grades – Southwest Airlines alcohol not currently served) was drinkable, Delta Airlines (alcohol again served) is a step up. You get what you pay for. The fact is, first class rail is very expensive – anyone who can afford first class Amtrak can afford a better beverage.

  5. I still say having coach passengers pre-order the food when booking their tickets is the way to go…it allows inventory control and if for some reason that particular person ends up not picking up their food or something else happens, you have extra meals to sell onboard.

    1. GERALD – What you are suggesting is that railroading join today’s world. Of course what you suggest is what should happen! A cell phone app that can sell a coach ticket can reserve a meal.

      In the 1950’s, a railroad diner was a restaurant that had to stock a lot of food on spec it would be ordered and served …. and frankly a lot of it got thrown out. This is 2021, not 1955.

      1. I agree Charles. Cheap food or good food, the high cost of running a dining car is in the staff and the car itself. Pre-ordering would go a long way towards managing the expense and minimize on board prep.

        Unless Amtrak wants to be firmly in a cruise train business (with the associated premium price), the food expense has got to be managed

  6. I hope management is paying attention to what better service can yield in terms of increased revenue, and that they apply that lesson to the Eastern LD’s as well.

  7. These meal choices need to be made nationwide as the eastern long distance trains should not still be saddled with the garbage from our previous airline exec.

  8. We are hopeful of returning to our Seattle/Essex Mt trip next spring. Perfect timing for meal service. Dinner from Seattle and breakfast into Essex. Returning its dinner out of Essex and breakfast into Seattle. It’s one of the attractions of travelling there by Amtrak rather than car of air.

  9. Spelling Errors in Part One of the article. Sriracha is the correct spelling for seiracha.

    Caesar is the correct spelling for cesar.

    Otherwise a welcome report of very good news.

    Joseph Daniels

  10. Despite a very good review by Johnston of Amtrak’s reinvention of “traditional dining services,” several relevant issues remain unanswered, as if Amtrak chooses to simply ignore.

    1) When will Amtrak be prodded by the GAO to cease gaming customers by marking-up menu prices as if the diner was the 21 Club? Nobody is fooled not to understand the intent to shift diner costs to the sleeper passengers is to depress the extraordinary costs of operating diners with a staff on the western trail at least 6 days. Amazing how Amtrak found a certified accounting firm to go along with the masking, let alone Congress.
    However, such an antic also serves to dissuade coach passengers from utilizing the diner. If Amtrak is so concerned about mixing the classes, it could require/restrict coach passengers to use the booths in the Sightseer cafe car if they wish to partake in the table d’hôte menu. Or, as such restriction by class reeks of violating the SCOTUS case of Henderson v. U.S. (1950) re restrictive segregation, perhaps Amtrak would prefer just hanging a heavy curtain to explicitly separate sleeper and coach passengers?
    Or, refusing coach passengers and not posting menu prices is because Amtrak is simply so slow in reacting to change. For how long has Amtrak sought to (unsuccessfully) install cash and product controls, by failing to implement bar coding, Point-of-Service computer systems, or, even a cashless system. How was the Santa Fe able to sell discounted meal books with the coach tickets?
    2) When will Amtrak establish a firm policy on all passengers to be properly dressed in the diner? This means no dirty sports hats, shower clogs, open toed sandals, sleeveless t-shirts, and no short shorts. As well, no hats should be worn by males over 15. (At 15, it’s a good age to start learning manners to be a gentleman and not act like a farm worker).
    3) Has Amtrak clarified that toast has been returned to the diner, given how many were stolen out of the diners post Claytor that Amtrak stopped replacing them?
    4) If Amtrak invested in cooking classes for chefs to learn the revised menus, why did Amtrak not use the pandemic layoff time to school the LSAs in mixology in order to craft cocktails, rather than the hit-or-miss approach beyond a gin/tonic?
    5) As Amtrak senior/corporate management is known to avoid riding long distance trains trains, how will the service standards be observed–and maintained, particularly as nobody has evidenced the expertise to step into Mr. Claytor’s shoes. Mr. Gunn was very close until his own Board turned on him.

  11. This conversation is nothing new, it’s been going on for decades. And as long as government is in charge of passenger trains, this conversation will continue. Amtrak is not a privately run enterprise and therefore does not make decisions based on what’s best for the bottom line. All decisions are ultimately political, and have a diametrically opposed objective to decisions driven by market forces. If you want to rely on having consistently good food on an Amtrak long distance train, you’ll have to bring your own raw materials and cooking supplies.

  12. After decades of riding Amtrak, most of that in coach, I am still scratching my head about why leadership thinks coach passengers don’t want sit down freshly prepared foods.
    I always eat in the dining car when available.
    And I see no reason why any train trip that crosses two or more mealtimes does not have a dining car, even if not overnight.
    Sure, work with central reservations or the Amtrak app to preorder food–that helps with optimizing what is on board and prepped, but also allow all passengers access to the dining car!

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