By Robert Lucke
Craig Anderson looks at his watch and signals a crew of six to begin, and the line begins. They are making boxed chicken dinners for Amtrak's Empire Builder. One picks up a carton, adds plastic utensils and a hunk of kale. The next puts in a slice of cobbler. Then along comes a person who places a chicken breast and drumstick in, carefully folding them so they fit together on the kale. Another adds a dollop of fruit salad. Another adds a homemade roll and butter. Then another adds a finger bowl, a Lewis and Clark button, then closes, seals and labels the package. On this day there were 72 individual dinners packaged in 12 minutes.
And in the middle of it all, an air conditioner installer looked in the back door and hollered out, "When can we turn off the water?" "Not until Dec. 14," someone hollered back.
This is a big deal. What started out three years ago as Havre business Boxcars supplying some Amtrak meals has now blossomed into supplying all the Amtrak meals from Chicago to Seattle.
Craig Anderson and wife Sandy tell the story.
"You know, I was doing some meals for Amtrak. I was a subcontractor and still am. In fact, I work for Gate Gourmet, the largest caterer in the world," Craig said. "I have never met any of them. I get my marching orders from Amtrak out of Seattle and Chicago."
For the first three years Boxcars put out about 18,000 meals annually for the railroad.
"Then this spring we were asked to provide all the meals. That would be around 72,000 annually and we agreed," Craig said. "I had to put on more help. We have employees who come in early in the morning and throughout the morning. We have 23 full- and part-time employees now and they start with sandwiches for Amtrak, then we package the chicken dinners, then we get ready for our lunch, and after lunch we are cooking chicken and getting prepared for the next day. We prepare and package around 140 meals per train. And we always make around 20 extra because almost every day we get a call for extra meals. That call might come in plenty of time or just 45 minutes before the train gets into Havre. We never know."
Boxcars cooks and packages 10 different meals each day for the Empire Builder. They range from the chicken picnic lunches to a breakfast box and some eight different sandwiches. Everything from a garden burger to beef and cheddar, green salads to spinach salads.
"I had one week to set this whole operation up this spring," Craig said. "I had to shut the restaurant down for five weeks until we knew what we were doing. It drove me crazy. There was not a soul in the bar day after day, but the kitchen was a madhouse. I am glad we did that because it gave us the time to get organized. You know this is seven days a week, 365 days a year."
"We just hated to close down the restaurant," Sandy said. "But we are open again now."
Everything posed new paths for Boxcars. New lines of credit had to be established for suppliers from far away because Amtrak is choosy about where their caterers buy their food. Then, there was the fact that the Andersons were out of storage space around the second week.
"Gusto had a gooseneck trailer and they let us use that so now it is full of containers," Craig said, laughing. "Every time we order, it seems like we order 30 to 40 cases. As a matter of fact, our kitchen manager, Bobbie McCormick, is now almost full-time our purchasing agent. She is buying months ahead."
So how does it all work?
"That is simple. We have a super crew. The best I have ever had," Craig said. "They can see the objective and get it done. And they are there in times of emergencies. If we have 45 minutes to get 120 ham sandwiches out or 180 turkey dinners, they are there to do it."
It is mostly repeat and repeat day after day.
"The minute one meal gets into the cooler and ready for delivery, we start for the next day. Today we are going to be broasting chicken all afternoon and Scotty and me are going to cut meat for the next four or five hours. That is how it goes," he said, referring to employee Scotty Streeper.
Craig and Sandy Anderson are life-long Havre residents and childhood sweethearts. They are the parent to two children, Jordan and Jera.
So how long can they do this strenuous and confining work?
"If it wasn't for Scotty Streeper, I don't know what we would do," said Sandy. "He and Craig sort of play off of each other and really work well together."
"We will ride this horse as long as we can do it," Craig said with a broad smile. "We have been in the business for 30 years now. My mother, Thelma Anderson, told me if you love what you do you will never have to work another day in your life. And we are rock and rolling seven days a week!"