Truckin’ Toward Guest Satisfaction: Food Strategies for Railroad and Transport Museums

November 1, 2012 No Comments

Children and adults alike enjoy a visit to a railway or transportation museum; the former, most likely based on their youthful fascination with transportation itself and the latter, often because of the historical aspect. No matter the demographic they serve, such venues must and do offer food and snacks to suit their clientele.
The Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, Mo., attracts visitors of all ages, with more than 190 major exhibits of automobiles, buses, streetcars, aircraft, horse-drawn vehicles and riverboat materials. Its cadre of exhibits is constantly expanding to reflect the ever-changing nature of transportation, said Caitlin Hutter, manager. Among the most notable examples of transportation on display at the museum are the mid-1800s Boston & Providence “Daniel Nason”; Union Pacific #4006 (“Big Boy”), the largest successful steam locomotive ever built; the diminutive “Charles H.,” a small steam engine from Chicago’s Lake Street Elevated rapid transit line that was cosmetically restored in 1996 to its original appearance; and the 6,600-hp, two-engine Union Pacific diesel #6944 (“Centennial,”) built by General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division in 1971. A road vehicle comprising over 200 items includes a 1901 automobile built by the St. Louis Motor Carriage Co. (oldest of only nine such cars known to still be in existence), as well as the only operational Chrysler turbine car on public display.
Despite the broad demographic to which the Museum of Transportation caters, its bill of fare is geared almost exclusively to children because adults do not seem to be interested in dining at the venue; but rather, in feeding their children and proceeding with their visit, Hutter reported. Accordingly, the menu includes such kid favorites as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, string cheese, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, animal crackers and juice boxes. Hot dogs, bratwurst and soft pretzels are also available, as are Frito-Lay snacks, lemonade and soft drinks.
“It’s mostly children,” Hutter observed. “The parents buy a hot dog for themselves for lunch, but most of the food we offer is for children. Our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are very popular.” She added that keeping menu items inexpensive ups the sales ante; for example, a hot dog costs $1.65, and a “deal” on string cheese offers two sticks for 85 cents.
Simplicity is also the order of the day at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Md., and the Whistle Stop Café at the Galveston Railway Museum in Galveston, Texas. The former is billed as housing the world’s oldest, most historic and most comprehensive American railroad collections. Dating from the beginning of American railroading, the collection contains locomotives and rolling stock, historic buildings and small objects that document the impact of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) on the growth and development of early railroading. The museum’s roster of locomotives and rolling stock is said to represent the first, last, best or only locomotives of their kind in existence today. A small object collection covers almost every facet of railroading, including clocks, pocket watches, textiles, lanterns, dining car china, silver, fine art, communication devices, signals, shop equipment and an assortment of tools and artifacts used on historic occasions such as the laying of the B&O’s ceremonial First Stone on July 4, 1828, which marked the beginning of construction of America’s first railroad.
Most of the museum’s visitors are families seeking a quick bite to eat, said Kathy Hargest, director of events and corporate sponsorship.  Accordingly, its café, Traxside Snacks, serves tuna and turkey sandwiches, pizza, chicken fingers, hot pretzels, “yogurt for the kids, and of course, juice boxes,” Hargest reported. Specials of the day are sometimes featured, but these, too, are of a basic nature; examples encompass wraps and other sandwich-type options.
To ensure that visitors know they need not leave the museum to find a meal or snack, staff and volunteers talk up the café in the course of conversation. Signage, too, encourages guests to check it out.  “Our volunteers and staff are in direct communication with visitors, and they always suggest stopping by for a snack,” Hargest noted.
For their part, visitors to the Galveston Railway Museum want “something fast and not heavy” a fruit salad, submarine sandwiches, or one of the homemade (house-formed) burgers for which the dining establishment is known, said Lupe Cantu, owner of the Whistle Stop Café. Salads with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, spinach, carrots, egg and cheese, to which roast beef, chicken or tuna can be added, resonate with this crowd as well. By contrast, government workers from the building in which the museum and café are located gravitate more heavily towards its Mexican plates and other substantial fare.
“I ask the people what they want to see on the menu, and if two or three people ask for the same thing, I try it,” Cantu stated. “Last week, it was fried shrimp. So I’m not exactly expanding, but I’m always looking to keep the menu fresh.”
The Galveston Railway Museum houses exhibits that focus on the history of railroading in Galveston and all of Texas. Among its features are a “People’s Gallery” that once served as the Santa Fe Union Station waiting room and contains replicas of “ghosts of travelers past,” several model train theatres and a sizeable collection of railroad artifacts, including the United States’ largest collection of railroad dining ware, silver and china. Locomotives and rail cars are showcased in an adjacent train yard.
For some transportation and railroad museums, visitors’ desire for simplicity is such that snacks alone, rather than a more varied menu of snacks and more substantial offerings, seem to suffice. This is true of the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Company & Museum in Portland, Maine. Christina Aliquo, visitor service manager, said individuals in the facility’s mixed target audience, which comprises equal cadres of families with young children, vacationers/tourists and transient passengers boarding or disembarking from cruise ships docked at Portland’s cruise ship terminal, are not especially interested even in purchasing sandwiches there. Chips, crackers, cookies and other packaged snacks are on sale entirely as a convenience to guests, she asserted. The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Company & Museum is dedicated to the preservation of Maine’s two-foot gauge railways. -

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