BY ROGER WILLIAMS
In this age of relentless change, Swiss railways deliver dependable travel services with trains arriving and departing as timely as the red second hand that moves around the iconic Swiss railway clock.
The Swiss train operator, SBB, carries over 421 million passengers a year and operates in a country with the highest ratio of rail users per capita of any national railway. Mountainous terrain, short journeys, cheap fares and real public pride in this steadfast institution has helped ingrain rail travel into the Swiss psyche, with the car seemingly second choice and internal air travel not getting a look in.
Refreshingly, dining on trains is still considered ‘de rigueur’ – good news for Elvetino, SBB’s railway catering subsidiary. However, whilst SBB supports onboard catering, it’s also accountable to a Swiss public that demands service excellence. Consequently for Elvetino, with SBB as owner and main client, the stakes are high and commercial and quality performance are both critical.
Serving 32,000 customers a day, Elvetino’s SBB operations utilise a fleet of 88 dining cars, 10 bistros and 100 mini bars, but as all SBB catering is retail based, catering finances are dependent on generating sufficient revenue from onboard sales.
Train designs range from open-plan dining with loose seating to counter service cafeterias. Galleys are well equipped with bean to cup machines, convector ovens, draught beer and efficient refrigeration, whilst a significant number of services also have Lavazza coffee trolleys.
As a travel hub, this beautifully scenic country benefits from its position in central Europe. Several international services link with France, Germany, Austria and Italy. From its base in Zurich, Elvetino is perfectly placed to work with many of the international train operators and includes TGV Lyria, Deutsche Bahn and SNCF Italia among its external clients.
Open from 6.30am to 9pm, seats in the SBB onboard restaurants can be booked up to a day before departure for a supplement of CHF 5 per seat. Meanwhile Elvetino also caters customer lounges for SBB as well as various overnight trains, making it a real 24-hour operation.
Exploring the menu
With services from Paris in the west to Vienna in the east, Hamburg in the north to Milan in the south, the diverse range of customers certainly has an influence on Elvetino’s service. Dishes such as olive focaccia with tomatoes and mozzarella, wiener sausages with potato salad , and chicken breast ‘saltimboca’ clearly reflect this international mix.
However, Elvetino’s service remains redoubtably Swiss, with menus developed in partnership with the Swiss National Culinary Team. Local produce is used wherever possible and all meat is of Swiss origin, whilst the main beers are Feldschlössen, Switzerland’s biggest brewer in Rheinfelden. Other traditional snacks featured include currywurst, mixed leaf salads, a Swiss cheese platter, blueberry muffins and Swiss chocolate cake.
Elvetino also operates the world’s first Starbucks coffee house on rails, with two fully-branded onboard units developed with SBB, serving Starbucks coffee, snacks and hot food, and recently (by popular demand) alcohol. Perhaps it says something about the Swiss public’s view of American coffee that, perversely, beer is now the biggest-selling item!
The quality of the onboard catering (and the accuracy of the Swiss railway timetable) was put to the test on my latest European adventure – a visit to meet Elvetino in its headquarters, just across the road from Zurich’s main rail station.
Greeted on arrival by deputy ceo, Michelangelo La Malfa, I was shown the well-organised logistics operation, now modelled on a traditional railway ‘left onboard’ stock system, as train sets circulate over several routes before returning to a suitable restocking location.
Recent changes in logistics planning has allowed central control of all stock by Zurich, which has improved stock security and gross profit as well as leading to previously unachievable staff reductions.
Onboard staff are managed centrally and, in addition to scheduled services, Elvetino has a charter unit run by Bedri Kuqi, a real industry character. His highly-skilled team provides upmarket silver service catering on a train called Churchill. With two charming dining areas and a tiny galley that would challenge any chef, it consistently produces sumptuous and indulgent food, complemented by some fine Swiss wines such as Petite Arvine Valais and Maienfelder Pinot Noir.
Travelling on Churchill is a real treat, even for a hardened industry professional like me, and the catering experienced during a charter trip that took us to view the stunning Reichenbach Falls in the Bernese Oberland region, was second to none.
Inspired, I set out to test catering on scheduled intercity services on the lines running towards Bern, Geneva and St Gallen, and was not disappointed. The cafe on the first train to Winterthur served Lavazza speciality coffee from the reliable WMF bean-to-cup machines and a melt-in-the-mouth locally-baked chocolate muffin. Although I was not dining I was politely invited by the host to sit in the restaurant area at the smartly-dressed tables to enjoy our coffee and cake.
Detraining at Winterthur, I went on to pick up another dining car where we were again ushered to a dining table and offered menus. It was almost lunchtime and perfect timing to try the Zürcher Geschnetzeltes. This is a famous Swiss dish from the Zurich region, with sliced veal strips, white wine, cream and demi glace and served with delicious spaetzli (soft egg noodle found in different shapes across Switzerland, Southern Germany, Austria and Hungary).
On to my third train I sampled dessert – chocolate topped cream slice – washed down with a glass of Prosecco! I took a tour of the galley and was pleased to see the high standards of cleanliness and food storage.
Then it was back to Zurich and a chance to visit one of the two Starbucks café rail units, with their perfectly-formed glass- and wood-faced counter. Sitting upstairs on the double decker train I was served piping hot cappuccino in a Starbucks mug by staff dressed in Starbucks uniforms. The whole thing looked very authentic and the cake display was so enticing that I couldn’t resist a strawberry meringue cookie to take away for later.
Later, as I sat in the airport waiting for the plane home and eating that cookie I couldn’t help wondering just how many calories I had consumed in this visit but, one thing was certain, Elvetino’s catering had really proven itself to be amongst the best in European travel.