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On the right tracks

Train caterers may not always be known for their startling cuisine and impressive wine lists, but Nick Spencer, buyer at GNER, is hoping to change all that. Robyn Lewis reports

THE JOKE about British Rail sandwiches may be as old as they come but sadly on many trains these days it is still a relevant comment as in many cases the catering offer has not much improved since privatisation.

There are, however, those in the rail industry who do not see why this should be the case. Enter Nick Spencer, catering development manager of the Great North Eastern Railway (GNER), whose work ensures that those lucky enough to be in need of travelling from London to York, Edinburgh and any other of the east coast line destinations (or vice versa) can enjoy, say, grilled Wensleydale back bacon, pork sausage, free-range eggs (fried or scrambled), a field mushroom, black pudding, tomato, hash brown and baked beans for breakfast, washed down perhaps with a glass or two of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut on their morning journey.

And on your evening return perhaps lentil & wild mushroom soup followed by a sautéed sea bass on crushed chive potatoes with a tomato, anchovy and black olive sauce and then a moist vanilla sponge packed with cherries and served with a creamy brandy and vanilla sauce? All enjoyed alongside a glass or two of the house wine, a Marsanne Chardonnay 2003? Or you could trade up to a Chablis Premier Cru Côte de Lêchet 2002 from Domaine Daniel Dampt, Burgundy, France? This, as you may have gathered, is not your standard train offering.

"We launched the Go Eat concept (the brand under which the catering for GNER trains operates) about two years ago, around the same time I started in my current role.  We had gone through a big re-structure and the department went down from five people to three, which is very small when you consider our size. 

We serve about 60% of those that travel with us I’d say and on a busy day we’ll serve about 70 breakfasts in the restaurant on the morning train and in the evening about 50 or 60 dinners. Basically we do about 103 restaurant services a day, most of them serving about 12 or 13 people."

And that is just in the restaurant, on top of that there is the buffet car and there is also a trolley service available to passengers.  That means that there is huge potential to catch hungry – and thirsty – customers.

In fact the drinks offering is something that Spencer has been working on most recently, having established a partnership with Yorkshire-based wine importers, wholesalers and merchants, Playford Ros.

"We got approached by Playford Ros who had lots of good ideas about improving our wine list, which at the time was anything we could get off the shelf and wasn’t really very well thought out. They suggested that we go and blend our own for a house wine, which would be no more expensive than buying off the shelf and you won’t have the same wine as anybody else.

I am of the school, like a lot of restaurateurs, that I don’t want a wine that someone can say, ‘oh! I can get that in Tesco for £3.99.’ Now we work very closely with them and even though the business is big enough to have maybe two suppliers, we stick exclusively with Playford Ros because I think we see the benefits of building good relationships."

The exclusively blended house wine sells for £10.95 a 75cl bottle, £7.25 for a halfbottle and £4.25 for a quarter and the volumes are, in Spencer’s own words "humungous," which gives them a great deal of muscle when it comes to producers.

"We sell about 4,500 quarter bottles of white a period, which is about four weeks and around 5,000 quarters of red a period.  That means when it comes to suppliers we can maybe pressure them a little into bottling halves or quarter bottles for us even if they don’t normally do that because of those volumes."

And the significance of this persuasive argument for Spencer cannot be underestimated as quarter and half-bottles are where he finds most of his business.  "The majority of our wine sales are those halfs and quarters offerings," he confirms.

"I think it is partly because lots of our passengers drive when they get off the train.  Actually one of the things we have talked about doing is screw-cap bottles, which would mean people are able to take an unfinished bottle home with them.

I think in fact we do have some coming online next year, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for example, and it will be interesting to see if people do trade up to a full bottle.  I think that’s certainly something we will try and push this time, although I actually think that half bottles are a good way to go with wine in general because you are able to experiment so much more."

Champagne also sells in half and quarter bottles in "humungous" (one his favourite word) volumes for Spencer, especially since Playford Ros suggested a change from an un-branded Champagne to Veuve Clicquot.

"Since the change to a recognised brand we have seen our Champagne sales go through the roof.  We sell about 500 bottles across the three sizes a period – most restaurants would love to be doing that kind of volume and that’s with a price increase from £25 for our old offering to £36.95 for a full-sized bottle," says Spencer.

"Really the problem is that we can’t carry enough to supply demand – though that’s not a bad problem to have, really."  Storage is in fact one of the biggest obstacles to Spencer’s burgeoning sales, as each train has to carry a wide offering in limited space.

Cans of Stella Artois and Carlsberg, bottles of the house and other wines jostle with a selection of spirits in miniature, bottled water and other soft drinks and sundries, all of which have to be accommodated.

So what happens if there is a Friday night rush on Champagne for example? "We do keep a full stock in York, which is about two hours into the journey from London and they keep all the wines and Champagne chilled so that a train coming in can top up.

On the busy trains the managers will know, for example, if they are going to do 60 dinners and so they will make allowances for that and put in an additional order at the start of the journey, then return it if it is not sold at the end.

They know their business, so likewise on a Friday night they know it is Stella Artois night and will carry extra cans to meet demand."  The logistics of delivering all of this to each train is, as you might imagine a rather complex process, though Spencer is keen to point out it does work well.

"We place our orders twelve days in advance to Rail Gourmet, who actually deliver to the trains.  So, for wine for example we would order with Rail Gourmet, then they send that order to a company called Granby’s, which are based in Liverpool and they will then send that order out to Playford Ros, which they’ll accept.

Then Playford Ros will trunk it out to Granby, who’ll put it on palates and deliver it to either Kings Cross, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds or Glasgow and then Rail Gourmet will pick it up, make up the order and deliver it to the trains. It has always been like that and yes it does raise cost issues but they both do a great job and really know the business well so we don’t tend to run out.

The only issue we have is if we run a promotion that’s gone particularly well, which we have done in the past, is trying to get the wine out of bond quick enough.  Though it’s never got to a stage where it’s caused a real problem."

Talking of promotions, how do you persuade a train passenger to trade up to premium products, indeed how does one persuade an average UK rail passenger to eat and drink on a train at all, let alone trade up?

"It is hard, I think partly because of the nature of travelling in the UK.  A lot of people tend to plan beforehand and others tend to just grab something.  And with the trolley, if the train is full, the guy struggles to make one journey all the way through the train. I mean if there are something like 80 people in a carriage and most of them are having, say a coffee, then it must take the best part of three, four minutes to serve each one, take the money, give the receipt etc and so it is the sheer volume of getting through.

That is a market we are missing out on.  We should be going back thorugh the train at least twice and that is one of the things we are working on.  Another of the problems we have is getting the message of what we have on board across.  I don’t think we are good enough at that.

We are trying to get better at it by offering ticket deals that include meals, a voucher scheme where you pre-buy a voucher for say £5 or something and it’s redeemable against, say £7 worth of goods on board.

We have a TV campaign going live this month and will be placing full menus and wine lists all through standard class soon as well.  I mean we are trying.  "One of the problems with the rail industry is that we are constantly getting it in the neck but you know all of the rail operators are doing their best.

We are all independent and do things differently – First Great Western has their way and Virgin theirs but we are all trying to raise customer expectations of the rail industry.  What I think we at GNER have been able to do is prove that we can get good quality foods on board, we can get good quality wines and we can also give you good service as well."

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