The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 6 (October 1, 1927)
Refreshments on the New Zealand Railways. — The Art Of Pleasing Patrons
We may live without poetry, music and art;
We may live without conscience, and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilised man cannot live without cooks.
He may live without books-what is knowledge but grieving?
He may live without hope-what is hope but deceiving?
He may live without love-what is passion but pining?
But where is the man that can live without dining?
Where is he indeed! Civilised or uncivilised man cannot live without dining. Whether uncivilised man eats civilised man, or civilised man eats the tongues of thrushes and nightingales (as he once did) or grasshoppers or plain green leaves, or the more substantial and delectable dishes that are sumptuously arrayed before him at a modern State banquet, the fact remains that eating is one of man's essential activities.
There is not a department of human life or conduct which, throughout its long evolution, has not been influenced for good or ill by the quantity and quality of the food consumed. This influence has left its impress on man's religious and moral systems; on his literature, art and philosophy; and it has swung the pendulum in the decision of the world's great wars. The ceaseless urge to satisfy hunger and thirst has made the story of man's sickness and health; of dreams, hopes and aspirations; of disappointments, failures and achievements. It explains his love and song and joy and hate and fear; it is the story, in a word, of his travel and travail through the ages.
The poet who sang of that hour
“…Of all hours the most bless'd upon earth,
The bless'd hour of our dinners!” certainly knew human nature rather well.
Thus was the writer meditating in a comfortable railway carriage one sunny day last month. It was the time and place for such meditation. He had just enjoyed an excellent dinner, well-cooked and well-served, in one of the clean and up-to-date dining rooms which, for the past ten years or so, have been substituted for dining cars on the main line express trains of the North and South Islands.
As the train sped joyously on its way the thought kept constantly recurring in the writer's mind that the Railway Department possessed, in its Refreshment Branch, an asset of no mean importance; that the staff of the organisation-from those who selected the food from the world's stores to those who placed it on the spotless tables before the hungry traveller-had a comprehensive knowledge of the real science of dietetics-of the secret agency, that is, which can produce, in the traveller, perfect satisfaction and right good humour.
That an organisation managed so scientifically and ably and rendering its patrons such efficient and courteous service is at the same time an economically sound concern is what one would expect to discover from its history and development.
A “peep behind the scenes” not only confirmed this impression, but revealed a record of steady expansion and increasing patronage that would make the Management of more spectacular businesses feel envious. It was in August, 1917, that the Railways took over the control (from the then lessees) of the Rrefreshment Rooms throughout its system.
Starting in that year with eight rooms under its jurisdiction (and with a total staff of 122), it has grown steadily year by year. To-day it page 10 controls twenty-six rooms and its staff number 368. From Whangarei in the north, to Queenstown in the south, its never-ending function is the provision of refreshments, in all their variety, for railway travellers. This function it discharges with consummate art and thoroughness.
Nor is it the policy to exploit patrons in the process. Far from it. Indeed, not a few travellers have expressed surprise that such excellent meals could be provided for the money. Two shillings and sixpence for a first class hot dinner is certainly a most reasonable charge. The policy, then, is not to make profits. Rather is it to provide patrons with high quality meals in liberal variety-in a word, to give them the service that wins approval. This is its aim. That it is attained, the response of the travelling public amply attests.
At the end of the first complete year of the Branch's operations (1918–1919) the gross revenue was £49,700. The gross revenue at the end of the year just closed was no less than £129,611-almost a three-fold increase. To obtain this revenue the Branch supplied 1¾ million passengers with refreshments.
In addition to its control of the station eating rooms, the Refreshment Branch carries out all the catering arrangements in connection with the Vice-Regal and Ministerial Cars, and for distinguished overseas visitors. Among the latter was the world-famed pianist, Paderewski, who paid a noteworthy compliment to its services.
The Branch also controls the staffing of the sleeping cars on the Main Trunk Line and the special ladies' cars. Its activities, moreover, extend to the purchasing of food-stuffs on behalf of the Stores Control Board for Government Departments-arduous tasks, and responsible, every one of them, but they are, nevertheless, performed daily without a hitch.
In regard to the important question of the purchase of supplies, the thoroughly sound principle of bulk purchasing is followed. Better quotations and discounts are obtained by this method. The buying is arranged in conjunction with the buying for other Government Departments-a mutually beneficial procedure. It is interesting to observe that the joint purchases in this connection last year amounted to £52,000 for the Refreshment Branch, and £150,000 for other Government Departments.
A very diversified list of commodities (covering almost everything that is edible) is kept in abundant stock in the larders of the Refreshment Rooms. As in other businesses of the kind there is a fluctuating demand for some of the lines kept in stock, and a persistent demand for others. In this connection an elaborate system of graphs is kept to detect these fluctuations. The principal foodstuffs, of course, come within the category of rapid consumption commodities. Last year, for instance, no less than 250,000lbs. of bread, 85,000lbs. of ham, 80,000lbs. of butter, 160,000lbs. of meat, 240,000lbs. of potatoes, 30,000lbs. of tea and 95,000lbs. of sugar were disposed of. Besides these items 300,000 packets of cigarettes, and chocolates to the value of £5,250 were sold. Fresh fruit is also in constant demand and large quantities are dealt with.
The supply of cartons containing light luncheon provisions (a recent innovation for the convenience of those who prefer to have their refreshments on the train, in their own good time, instead of at the refreshment counter) has been much appreciated by those who have tried them.
What impresses the traveller more than anything else, however, is the willing, courteous and efficient service which, throughout these refreshment rooms, is always at his disposal. That such efficiency is not something fortuitous, but is rather the result of a carefully conceived and executed plan to please the railway traveller, is made abundantly clear to the investigator.
Each member of the staff whose work is directly associated with the preparation, cooking or serving of meals-chefs, bakers, waitresses, page 11 and the officers in charge of the station rooms-is, after joining the staff, required to serve a period of probation, in the course of which his or her fitness for specific duties is definitely ascertained. Those only who have been tried out in this way are promoted to positions of trust and responsibility. The training of waitresses in charge is especially noteworthy. No member of the female staff holds a position of this description without being able to demonstrate her knowledge in the preparation and baking of small foodstuffs. This part of her training is carried out under the supervision of master tradesmen in the Department's own bakeries. In this way it is possible to ensure a practically uniform standard in regard to the small goods on sale at all the Refreshment Rooms.
Similar standardisation is aimed at (and in large measure attained) in the building and equipment of the Refreshment Rooms themselves. As traffic increases, and financial circumstances warrant, the older rooms are rebuilt and the equipment is modernised to conform with the latest and most up-to-date rooms on the system.
Such, then, is the Refreshment Branch of the N. Z. R. Though young in years it has yet a mature understanding of the psychology of business, giving always of the highest service whether catering for Royalty, Genius, or the average traveller.