Pullman’s catering legacy

September 18, 2019

U.S. entrepreneur George Pullman had a clear vision of onboard catering and set a benchmark in rail hospitality we do well to aspire to, says Roger Williams

Europe’s first scheduled Restaurant Car service operated from Leeds to London in 1879, using a converted American Pullman sleeping coach.

Whilst glamorous inside, this 40-seat saloon called Prince of Wales had a basic kitchen, partly on an open balcony, where the chef had to contend with engine soot and inclement weather.The attendant, Englishman James Bower, had worked on Pullman trains in America, and soon built a regular clientele for Midlands Railways. ‘Luncheon’ cost two shillings (about 15 cents) with a menu of mock turtle soup, potato Crecy, lobster mayonnaise, mutton cutlets, roast beef, cherry trifle, cheese and vintage wines.

Previously, trains had chaotic 10-minute stops at awful station restaurants where staff reputedly served coffee so hot customers were forced to leave it. Staff then collected and “recycled” it for the next arrivals!

Pullman, on introducing the world’s first restaurant saloon in 1868 (named Delmonico after a New York restaurant), said “the way to a passenger’s heart is through fine dining” and Europe’s railways quickly copied.

Food love affairs
Whilst L’Express d’Orient, operating Paris to Vienna from 1883, took onboard hospitality to a new level, the ‘ordinary’ customer fell in love with eating onboard. By 1910 nearly three million meals a year were served in the UK alone.

Even normal menus were vast and chefs had to be skilled. An all-French menu from Great Central Railways listed: Tortue Claire, Fillet of Sole Waleska, Baron d’Agneau Pauillac, Caille sur Crôuton, Asperges vertes au Beurre fondu, Biscuit glacé framboises and Caviare, with Chablis, Moet, Taylor’s Port and brandy.

We can only wonder what today’s celebrity chefs would make of that lot!

Golden Age
In the 1930s, the record-breaking speeds of Mallard and the Flying Scotsman helped create the “Golden Age of Rail”. Fast journeys in Art Deco interiors with silver service dining attracted a new generation of travellers, with cocktail bars, glass observation coaches and even headphones for onboard radio.

Think big, look ahead
Comprised of a team of textile experts creating inflight solutions to constantly elevate the aviation experience, the brand puts its core focus on ensuring passengers feel at home every time they travel. They see a huge potential for growth within the sector and have ambitions to become recognised widely as a global brand.

But disaster loomed, with WWII draining staff resources and rationing food. By the ’50s customers had little to spend onboard and road and air travel was developing quickly, with the nationalised railways becoming unpopular.

Anthracite coal stoves were converted to propane gas, and buffet bars were introduced, but generally trains lacked investment. In the ’60s ‘First Class only’ Pullman trains revealed there was still an appetite among business travellers for topend dining, but the airline industry was showing the way with ‘in-ticket’ pre-prepared products and modular at-seat service delivery.

Design choices
By its centenary in 1979, electric kitchens were replacing gas, offering microwaved hot snacks and improved refrigeration. Improved onboard point of sale began to drive up sales, but confusion reigned over service design between those wanting to retain ‘cook onboard’ and those moving towards pre-prepared meals. Station catering competition was also affecting revenue and future investments.

Most operators remained stubbornly traditional and a trial in 1987 using Trust House Forte pre-prepared meals in the UK was disasterous. Designers had failed to understand that trains were ‘walk on/walk off’ with no pre-determined dining numbers and so didn’t suit pre-prepared meal production.

High-speed era
Both Eurostar (1994), and Thalys (1996), introduced French TGV’s and began competing with airlines over cross border routes. Pre-allocated seating meant in-ticket/ at-seat/ pre-prepared meals, and no restaurant saloons were necessary. This released seating capacity, increased ticket revenue and reduced onboard kitchen costs – all helpful in paying for more complimentary items in First Class, which was becoming the trend. Shrinkage also reduced but in some cases costs rose due to production kitchen mark ups – of course, many of these caterers were also supplying airlines where margins were higher.

Some argue production off-board gives greater consistency of food quality, but not everyone was convinced. Irish, German, Polish, Swiss, Czech, Finnish, Hungarian, Russian and many others have kept traditional restaurant cars, mainly for cultural reasons, and still serve millions of meals.

Sadly for some, 132 years after launch, the Leeds to Kings Cross route withdrew its restaurant cars in 2011, replacing them with a hybrid complimentary at-seat meal prepared onboard. Now only GWR has a genuine restaurant car service in the UK still of the Pullman style.

And in its home destination, the U.S. Pullman’s vision is largely forgotten.The behemoth Amtrak organisation is bemoaned by customers and traditionalists for losing its way in onboard catering strategy, with vociferous feedback from customers that recent trials of pre-prepared airline style food offers on some of their iconic long distance trains have not been as well received as had been hoped.

Perhaps that just confirms what George Pullman said and holds as true today as ever – great food and drink, served well, is still the way to a passenger’s heart. Well as they say: “Dinner in diner, nothing could be finer!”