We’re heading up to Columbia U tonight to hear from professor Stephen Fried as he offers a public talk about his newest book, Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West.
We’ve hardly been able to put the thing down — Fried spins a spellbinding yarn about how Harvey, a 19th century British expatriate, overcame numerous business failures to build his namesake line of eateries along the Santa Fe railroad, beginning in the 1870s and 1880s when places like Dodge City, Kansas, and Deming, New Mexico, were still very much the Wild West. Despite the far-flung locales, Harvey was known for insisting on the highest standards for his restaurants, with silverware, linens, and china picked up on his trips to Europe, and equally high standards for the freshness of ingredients used in his food. And all that fancy finery was intended for what amounted to lunch counters for rushed railway passengers and dusty cowpokes!
As Fried points out, Harvey’s ideas about uniformity of quality and service, and the notion that no matter where a customer entered a Fred Harvey house, he’d know what to expect from a cup of coffee and a thick, juicy steak, were ideas way ahead of their time, and were eventually copied by everyone from McDonald’s to Starbucks (with varying results, obviously).
Naturally, writing about a former railroad empire involved a lot of travel.
“I first encountered Fred at the Grand Canyon, in the lobby of El Tovar, which is where millions have been encountering him for over a century. Then there was a pamphlet in my room with a little info,” Fried says. After that intro, Fried found himself crisscrossing the Midwest and Southwest. “Material on Fred and the railroads is very spread out, as were the family members who had his personal stuff. The highlight was the train trip my wife and I took along the old Santa Fe route from Chicago to LA [which is described in one of the book’s appendices]. There was a lot of travel — and since most of it was in the Southwest, I never complained.”
The Harvey empire long outlived Fred himself, who died in 1901, but rising competition, the impact of the 1930’s Depression, and the decline of the railroad industry itself all took their toll as the Harvey chain of eateries, with their famous Harvey Girls, barely outlived WWII. Still, today there are remnants, Fried says. “What is left of Fred Harvey is the operation at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, which was bought out by a company called Xantera, and which now does the restaurants and hotels and everything at most of the major western national parks. And two of the other greatest Harvey properties, La Fonda in Santa Fe and La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, are still operating (and at very high standards). There are, however, over a half-dozen old Harvey house buildings in California, Texas, Kansas, and elsewhere which have been completely refurbished for other uses — the Harvey hotel in Dodge City, for example, is now a dinner theater. There’s an appendix that shows the location of every Harvey operation and whether the building still stands and is in use.”
One of the book’s strengths is the way Fried tells the story of Harvey gradually coming up with the concepts that would change America’s eating habits, business methods, and ideas about travel. But we had to ask: If Harvey’s ideas were welcomed by late-19th century travelers who were sick of lousy backwater diners, haven’t some of his chain-restaurant concepts been corrupted over time?
Fried: “What Fred Harvey proved — at a time when it was much harder to be ‘fast,’ is that fast food can, in fact, be the best food. We are talking about three- and four-course meals, with steaks done to order, dressing made by hand at table side, freshly made everything, served in less than half an hour (which seemed leisurely because of the service) to people who had a 30-minute meal break. What Harvey proved — and people marveled at for decades — was just how high-end fast service could be. I think probably only Starbucks today is viewed that way, as a fast and high-end business. What Fred first systematized was a standard so that at every location, the food and service would be equally fine. Chains today still use the same format — they just don’t all have a commitment to the food being the very best. I’m biased, but I tend to view the situation as one that, over the years, people took the ideas invented by the Fred Harvey company and lowered the standards. There was a time when a fast-food nation was actually a comfort-food nation, and his retail stores were generally considered the highest-end in town — they could get stuff delivered quickly by train that a normal retail store would have to wait for.”
And what about train travel itself? We couldn’t help drawing another lesson from Fried’s compelling yarn — that at one time, rail travel was an entrepreneurial enterprise, and it paid to treat a passenger well. Today, of course, rail travel is a joke, and we’re just happy that competent operators like New Jersey Transit can get us to places on time and with little fuss. But is there any chance a Fred Harvey can make us actually want to travel by train farther than Philly? (And without taking out a bank loan for it.)
Fried: “I know there has been a long history of passenger service on trains not being what it could be. If ridership continues to increase on trains, as it has over the past couple years, I do think someone — either Amtrak, or a private company given the concession by Amtrak, will need to look at offering a Fred Harvey-level of service to people who will demand it on the trains (and, honestly, on planes as well). The issue of it being hard to make money taking care of long-distance passengers is, in fact, quite an old one, and one hard-wired into a country as large as ours. You need to put someone in charge of it whose only job is taking care of the passengers’ needs when they are on a plane, train or in an auto. Nobody believed it could be done before Fred did it, and nobody believes it now — but it can. And personally, I can’t wait.”