The Virgin Trains East Coast website announces:

Good news, foodies. We’ve made eating onboard even easier.

They've announced a Foodbar pre-ordering service. This isn't as ambitious as being able to order in-app which was hopefully going to arrive by the end of last year, but the current implementation is pre-order only, not on demand. It's available on 'selected services between London and Scotland' and only if you book direct through Virgin Trains East Coast.

Here's a screenshot, take a look and see if you can spot the limitations of this offering.

 Foodbar pre-ordering]

I noticed the following limitations of this:

  • You can't order the items separately, only as meal deals. It doesn't even have every combination, so you can have the tuna sandwich with still water or rose wine, you can't have the tuna sandwich with sparkling water, white wine or red wine.
  • The food options are only cold sandwiches, it doesn't have the full range, there's no hot food available.
  • Soft drinks and alcohol (except wine) aren't available.
  • The food is delivered to your seat sometime after boarding, there's no way to specify a preferred time currently. It might be good to get the food delivered mid journey if it's a long trip.

A big problem with this pre-ordering is it could actually put people off buying food on-board. They're presented with a small range of sandwich meal deals for £6, some people may think this is all that's available and decide to either get a supermarket meal deal before boarding at half the price as they'll offer a wider range of sandwiches, snacks and drinks or buy something from the station for example at Pret which has a better range and higher quality.

If you offered the hot food, then ordering would be more appealing as if you want something hot and substantial to eat on board it'd be good to be able to reserve it as there's usually only a limited amount of these stocked.

It's certainly not as useful as an in-app ordering system that let's you order from the full range on-demand, unfortunately this has yet to be released.

[VTEC in-app ordering]

If everything had been available for pre-order it would have been a good way to guarantee there'd be Hop on Board loaded in sufficient quantity (only a small number of bottles are usually loaded so if other people are drinking it then they can run out), if you're looking forward to a warm bacon roll, a curry or a toastie then it's good to know that you've reserved yours, but I doubt many will get excited over reserving a cold sandwich, something they could easily get better and cheaper before boarding. Remember that by its nature pre-ordering is targeting the organised because it has to be done before boarding, it's not going to help with impulse sales when you're already on the train. Therefore you need to give people a reason to pre-order.

My suggestions:

  • Make the full range from the Foodbar available to order, use this to ensure sufficient stock is loaded to deal with the orders
  • Have additional items (more hot meals) that can be pre-ordered but aren't usually on the menu. This could mean more interesting items could be stocked as you'd not need to worry about wastage as they'd only be loaded based on demand
  • Allow the passenger to select a time period for the food to be delivered (within a 30 minute window should be fine)
  • Give an incentive to book pre-order such as discount on the food, maybe make the discount similar to what you could obtain with catering vouchers
  • Make it available to First Class too. Currently it says it's only available to standard class but if it expands to include the full menu then some people in 1st may be interested in this if they don't like the complimentary options (particularly on weekends)

CrossCountry already tried this

CrossCountry has already tried this but I can't see the feature available any more. With CrossCountry it particularly made sense as their trains have a trolley only service, but they can still provide hot food in standard using the small kitchen area that's mostly intended for first class. Their pre-order included a number of hot items that wouldn't normally be available as well as the options to select a number of different drinks. Even though their system seemed to be useful as it offered benefits over their normal catering offering it seems that it wasn't successful. I've no idea whether it was lack of demand or whether the on board delivery just wasn't reliable enough.

Apparently for Virgin Trains East Coast this is a franchise commitment. Have they just implemented this in the most basic way possible as a box ticking exercise or will it grow into something useful?

The problem with many franchise commitments they can be delivered in a way that ticks the box but provides no actual benefit. Another example is they had to offer a minicab booking page to make onward travel easier, they did! It's here, but it's no use because it's not linked on the site from anywhere, it's just included to say they complied with that commitment. They also had a franchise commitment to promote a car sharing scheme, if you look carefully on some pages there is a link to Enterprise Car Club (was Ciy Car Club when they first started) but again it's not promoted in a significant way.