The Future of Fine Dining at Sea

How do you put food on the table when guests expect to be given the best for free? On a recent Holland America Cruise I had the opportunity to talk with Frits Ven Der Werff, Vice President for Hotel and Food & Beverage at Holland American Line  Here are some observations of my own and the practical approach Holland America is taking.

Travel Back With Me….

These are my thoughts:  The TV series Love Boat took place during the magical age of cruising during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Taking a cruise was an all inclusive vacation. Club Med was attempting to deliver a land based version at their resorts. There was a big difference:  On a cruise, everyone is treated like a king or queen. At an all inclusive resort, everyone is treated as equals. The terms might sound similar, but the differences are very real. If you’ve tried both, you know what I mean. Cruises boomed in popularity.

Part of the magical cruise experience was the abundance of food. Back then, I was writing articles for a newspaper group based in Brooklyn, NY. Having returned from a cruise, I happened to be sitting in the office of an executive of the cruise line when he was responding to a letter of complaint. By incredible coincidence, it was from one of the diners at our table onboard, a woman who found fault with everything. Her letter addressed the lack of salad options on the dining room menu. The executive dictated his response, mentioning: “We feel a choice of seven salads is sufficient for most people.”

Here’s the point:  Dining on a multi course dinner with abundant selection even on the salads course was considered normal. Cruise lines needed to compete on price but also needed to offer a cornucopia of dinner menu options.

Come Fly With Me

Who else needed to compete on price while delivering amenities? The airlines, of course. Airline meals suffered as the carriers strived to stay competitive. meals became material for comedian’s jokes. I think it was American Airlines that invented the concept of unbundling. Your basic fare got you a seat, but if you wanted a better one, you paid an additional fee. Ditto checked luggage. A key outcome was the smaller subset of people wanting a good meal were prepared to pay extra. People could bring their own food onboard. Passengers had more choice and control over their meals. Pricing pressure disappeared.

Dining on Holland America Today

Fritz Van Der Werff, the VP for Hotel and Food & Beverage at Holland America Line took me through how they approach dining onboard.

Those passengers who want an all inclusive dining program will get it. Breakfast is served in the main dining room, the Lido Market buffet restaurant or in your cabin. Lunch is served in the main dining room on sea days. The logic is many passengers choose to go ashore, reducing the need to keep the main dining room open. Passengers choosing to remain onboard have other lunchtime dining options including the Lido Market buffet and the casual dining locations, often near the deck and pool areas.

Dinner is approached from a real life perspective. Back home, you don’t eat at home all the time. You dine out occasionally. Sometimes it’s casual, other times it’s elegant. At home, dinner might be “free” yet dining out comes with a cost.

The main dining room has a menu that doesn’t change that much. This meets a logical need:  You might have found it difficult to choose between two entrees. Try one the first night and another the second. Dinner specials might vary. Those dinner specials often come with a supplementary charge, but if you are happy with the traditional menu you aren’t paying extra.

Not everyone wants to dress up and visit the main dining room. Many passengers prefer buffet dining in the Lido Market. Holland America has chosen to move this option upscale, with restaurant staff serving out portions instead of the self service format associated with salad bars.

At some point, everyone wonders about food waste. Veteran cruisers know a menu choice served at dinner might be a lunch option the next day or featured on the midnight buffet. Holland America has taken this a step further, gauging the popularity of dishes not only by how much was served, but how much was discarded! Analyzing the contents of waste bins sounds unattractive, yet they have been able to achieve a 50% reduction in food waste by focusing on serving the dishes people both want and finish.

It’s Time for Fine Dining

Holland America’s Rotterdam provides a good example how fine dining is done across the fleet. The ship has several upscale dining venues. Like dining on shore, you make prior reservations. I had the opportunity to try four venues which included the steakhouse, French seafood bistro, Italian and Asian dining options. These venues come with a surcharge and certain ultra premium dishes have a supplement. This is similar to you and your spouse choosing to dine out on date night or to celebrate a special occasion.

Why should you choose a specialty restaurant?

  • Inspired dishes. Holland America has their own Chef’s Council. Their celebrity or industry professional chefs create dishes unique to the cuisine along with traditional favorites.
  • Smaller venue. The main dining room is breathtaking, but it’s also huge. The specialty restaurants are more intimate.
  • Choose your time. Like fine dining back home, you select the time you want to dine.
  • Unhurried service. The reservation system lets the staff manage the flow of diners and meals. The main dining room needs to keep to a schedule to accommodate two seatings.
  • Upscale food. Unlike the main dining room, you are paying a premium to dine is a specialty restaurant. The food is a notch above, as you would expect.

What’s Club Orange?

Different cruise lines approach dining options differently. Suppose you are a person who likes the main dining room selections, yet wants to dining at a time of their choosing, not navigate a large dining room and be greeted by name by a staff that knows your preferences?

I discovered Holland America has developed another dining option, Club Orange. You pay a supplement in addition to your basic cruise fare, yet now have a smaller, more private dining venue for your meals. Capacity is limited, which contributes to the intimacy.

Where Is Dining at Sea Headed?

Cruise lines have district personalities, yet they need to be “all things to all people” within their personality category. Future passengers should still expect the all inclusive experience, yet the menu choices won’t return to the galaxy offered in the past. Premium dining options will proliferate giving passengers wider choice of dining experiences. Everyone wants your cruise to be the trip of a lifetime.


Cover photo courtesy Holland America: Chef Rudi Sodamin’s Seafood Tower


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