The Lesson for Today of Fred Harvey

Opinion  By Noel T. Braymer

I recently finished the book “Appetite for America” by Stephen Fried. This book is more than a history of Fred Harvey the man, his family or his company but uses all three as the context of a social history of the United States roughly between 1850 to 1950. Fred Harvey was the proverbial poor boy from England who came to America as a teenager in 1853 to find his fortune and avoid being drafted in the British Army.

Far from being an overnight success he endured many personal and financial setbacks after he came to America. He finally found success in Kansas. He had worked in a restaurant for a short time in New York City when he first came to America and managed one shortly in 1860, but he become successful as an independent businessman with several enterprises and investments.His main business was as a sales agent for several railroads and selling advertising for a local Kansas newspaper. For his work he traveled around the country by train much of the time. Fred Harvey was a middle aged man in his early 40’s by the mid-1870’s when he and a partner opened a business running 3 railroad restaurants for the Kansas and Pacific Railroad. At this time Dining Cars were not practical because passenger trains didn’t have vestibules to allow passengers to walk between cars. The practice in the 19th Century was for the train to stop every 100 miles when it was time to change steam locomotives and crews while giving passengers a 30 minute meal break at the railroad restaurant. These restaurants generally had a reputation for poor food and service.

From his first lunchroom for the Sante Fe in Topeka, Kansas in January 1876 as sole proprietor, Fred Harvey wanted a reputation for his restaurants of quality food and good service. He may have invented “supersizing” by serving quarter of a pie per slice. He made a point of having fresh coffee brewing at all times. With the dramatic flair of a Drill Sergeant in his travels he would make surprise inspections of his restaurants by jumping off the train before it came to a stop and inspecting the restaurant before the first customer was allowed in. If he found a table setting that wasn’t done right he’d yank off the table cloth demanding the table setting be redone before customers came in. What is important is that Fred Harvey knew that he wasn’t in the restaurant business. Today we call it the hospitality business, but it really was the entertainment business.

With most of his business intertwined with the fortunes of the Sante Fe Railroad, Fred Harvey knew he had to give people a reason to travel on the Sante Fe if he wanted more customers. The problem was the West didn’t have much business travel or many people. One of the things he built out West were luxury resort hotels which were the destination. Late 19th Century America had wealthy people who wanted to travel for adventure and in comfort. Fred Harvey through his company created the tourism industry in the American Southwest. This included promoting interest and sales in Native American Art and Jewelry as well as travel to archaeological sites. Western Rail Tourism was responsible for the creation of the National Parks. Some of the few original Fred Harvey hotels still in business are at the Grand Canyon which were always the biggest money makers for the Fred Harvey Company.

The lesson of Fred Harvey for today is understanding the close connection between the travel industry, the hospitality industry and entertainment. At the zenith of rail passenger service in this country the Fred Harvey Company was the leader in services at train stations. Fred Harvey ran restaurants, hotels, shops, bookstores, newsstands and other passenger services at most Santa Fe Stations and many Union Stations. We have lost most of this at American Train Stations. What services there are train stations can be on the overpriced and tacky side. Many trains stations lack almost everything including lit parking. Today local communities are responsible for local transportation including airports and transportation centers which are often also trains stations. To rebuild passenger rail service, passengers services at the stations are as important or more so than the speed or type of train equipment at the stations for attracting passengers. To increase ridership the lesson of Fred Harvey is you need to do more than meet demand, you must create demand for travel to or from your station. People need a reason, either for business, family or pleasure to travel to your town and to your train station. Meeting these markets are what cities and towns large and small with trains stations should think about to encourage more travel and business to their town and station.

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