Sounding Board: Staying on track

While readers may not recognize the name Fred Harvey, there is much to learn about customer service from this operator of restaurants at railroad stops and other underserved areas in the Old West.

By Len Lewis

More than a century before there was a Howard Johnson, Ray Kroc, Harlan Sanders or J. Willard Marriott, there was Fred Harvey.

If the name escapes you, you’re probably in the majority of readers. If you do recognize it, it probably brings to mind one of the grand MGM musicals of the 1940s, with the iconic Judy Garland singing her heart out about “the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” railroad in a crisp white apron as one of  “The Harvey Girls.”

This may seem like an esoteric subject for those of you trying to digest what you’ve seen and heard at FMI 2010 while attempting to analyze the age-old question: “What do customers really want?” Fred Harvey knew and created Harvey House restaurants—a venue for high-quality, reasonably priced food in places where there were none—and focused on the “customer experience” long before it became a buzzword in any industry.

Harvey, the creator of the Harvey House restaurants and an entrepreneur with true vision, is the subject of a intriguing new book called Appetite for America by journalist and Author Stephen Fried, which chronicles the life and times of someone who might fit quite nicely into today’s business environment, albeit someone who might physically throw his managers out the door if that customer experience wasn’t achieved to his satisfaction.

This is literally a story of America and apple pie, how the country grew with the expansion of the railroads and one man’s insistence that even customers in the dusty cow towns of the Wild West deserved easy access to good food in a comfortable environment. Getting a decent meal on trains or at railroad water stops in the 1880s was almost impossible for travelers, according to Fried. Apparently, they were the food deserts of their time.

Enter Fred Harvey, who opened fancy eateries and lunch counters manned by a carefully screened workforce of women who came to be known as the Harvey Girls and who, according to one writer of the time, “always looked like they were expecting you.” They built a reputation for quality and service that resulted in more than 60 Harvey House restaurants, lunch counters and hotels. No one had yet invented the term “supply chain” but one of the first was when the Santa Fe railroad agreed to ship fresh meat and produce free-of-charge in its own private refrigerator cars from anywhere in the country to any Harvey House. Try getting that from vendors today.

Fred Harvey’s 19th Century idea of empire building and workforce diversity may be a bit hard to swallow in the 21st. But the concept of a comfortable and efficient environment for patrons is as relevant today in New York, Chicago and L.A. as it was at the first Harvey House in Deming, N.M. We’ve seen that attention to the customer experience at places as Byerly’s, Publix, Trader Joe’s and H-E-B. We’ve seen its rise, decline and recent rebirth at Starbucks and we’re seeing the idea of improving the customer experience taking hold at chains like Wal-Mart and Aldi and at independents that know they can no longer afford to be middle-of-the-road providers.

There is an increasing perception that the customer experience is not just about being upscale, price oriented, ethnically focused, specialty-niched, social media savvy or any other one-trick pony-type strategy. And it’s certainly not about managing customers. The customer is not always right but they shouldn’t just be managed like cattle. Fred Harvey knew that, too.

Defining the customer experience may not be as simple as it was in Harvey’s time. But there are certain truisms that span the decades. One of the simplest and most pertinent I’ve ever seen came from a report several years ago by the consultancy Bain & Co. that outlined what they called “The Three Ds of Customer Experience.”

  • Design the right offers and experiences for the right customers;
  • Deliver those propositions by focusing the resources of the entire company on them; and
  • Develop their capabilities to please customers again and again.

These seem to be precepts that will work as well today as they did along the tracks of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. All board?

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Com­munications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at or at

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