Let the train take the strain
Published:  27 August, 2008

Thankfully we're not given a list of things we can't talk to Mark Elliott about, but if we were it would probably include cinemas, open-top buses and Cognac.

The first two featured in Elliott's career before he became responsible for buying all the on-board drinks for Eurostar . And although hinted at in conversation , requests for him to elaborate are declined. What we do know is that he's been involved in the Eurostar set-up in one way or another for 13 years.

The third no-no was once available on Eurostar but, surprisingly, is no longer.

"It was too popular; people wanted too much of it . It cost too much, quite frankly," he says, before quickly moving on to the next subject.

"I'm much happier talking about Champagne, which is a crucial part of the Eurostar experience.

"It's the ultimate Leisure Select drink . They're the people who have treated themselves to travel in first class on the train and Champagne is an integral part of a luxurious, indulgent trip to Paris."

We're sitting over coffees, coats pulled tight against the cold, beneath the restored Barlow train shed, at what has become the Eurostar train terminal at St Pancras in London.

Before the £10.5 billion regeneration, sitting here you would have had a pretty good chance of being run over by a Royal Mail van speeding on to the platform to meet the express f rom Nottingham or Sheffield.

Now, although we have to keep stopping for announcements from the over-efficient staff, it's a scene of grandeur and refinement befitting its new role.

Elliott is product development manager for Momentum Services, the contractor that buys all the food and drink for Eurostar trains and employs the on-board staff to serve them.

He's keen to point out that he's not a specialist wine buyer - "wine is a very pleasurable part of my job, but it's a very small part" - with the tendering process for potential wine suppliers taking a little over a month each year.

Suppliers are invited to send in samples that are tasted by the Momentum team and sometimes by panels of valued Eurostar customers, before a shortlist is passed on to Eurostar's catering department for input into final selections.

As well as working to a fixed budget, Elliott has to work to certain Eurostar policy initiatives, largely focusing on green issues.

"One of the simple things we can do is restrict the food miles by looking at local sources. With wine we've got France on our doorstep which is the obvious choice," says Elliott, deftly ignoring the tannoy's pleas for Chris Hopkins to go and meet Shirley Williams at check-in.

Environmental concerns mean the new range from April will be entirely French.

"In the past we've had wines from Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, which have been relevant because they reflect the UK market, and it was a very interesting experience for a lot of French customers seeing those.

"In the year when four of the six wines we had on board were from the New World, they were selected from a blind tasting by a French group of travellers in the lounge in Paris.

"We're limiting ourselves to France this time, to make sure there's no danger of us sourcing products from the other side of the world which we can get equally well from much closer to home. There are plenty of good wines in France."

The tendering process draws on contacts made at trade shows such as the London International Wine Fair and mainly involves

UK-based suppliers, particularly those that specialise in supplying trains and planes, with access to quarter-bottles and the inside track on duty issues.

"But also in France we'll approach co-operatives and producers direct," says Elliott, while being reminded for safety reasons to keep his luggage and other possessions with him at all times.

"It's an ever-expanding network and if we were approached by someone wanting to get involved we'd certainly look at them."

France's monopoly of the wine range in the year ahead means there's no room for English wine.

"English sparkling wines always come through very strongly in tastings," Elliott says. "We had Three Choirs one year and there were questions asked in Parliament when we took it off, but we didn't take it off for any other reason than that the year had come to an end and it was time to change and have a new tender."

English beer does get a look in this year, however, with bottled Fuller's London Pride being listed alongside the core range of Stella Artois and Kronenbourg - number one brands in the UK and French markets respectively - and Belgian specialities such as Duvel and Vedett.

"Pride's the first British beer we've had for years," he says. "The market's right now. We used to have quite a range at one time, but demand was low and we weren't able to serve them at the right temperature. Ale is resurgent and it fits in with Eurostar's local sourcing policy. What could be better than a London beer on a London train ?"

As well as local sourcing, the green effect is influencing packaging choices . Apart from Champagne, all wine is available only in 18.7cl bottles.

"It is something we can review because clearly a 18.7cl bottle is more wasteful than a 75cl one. From an on-board service perspective there's no problem pouring the first glass of wine from 75cl , the difficulty is getting the second glass at the time the customer needs it. They could be sitting around waiting for someone to walk past with a bottle. There's also the issue that once it's open it might not be used again. So quarter bottles are a very practical solution.

"Obviously for airlines the weight of packaging is crucial. They calculate the weight of everything and exactly how much it's going to cost in fuel, but for trains, there isn't the same link between the weight and the power used.

"For the first time we are looking at PET as an alternative source, though that has disadvantages with perception and the life of the wine. But it is something we're looking at, and we have asked people to quote for it."

Organics and Fairtrade are starting to play an increasing role, too.

"Organic is another thing we've specifically asked suppliers to quote for this year. In the past, we've had 150 wines to choose from and maybe one or two were organic and the quality was variable. The market's developed enough that we may be able to buy 500,000 bottles of a single organic wine and get the consistency we need.

The Cognac issue aside, spirits don't play an important role in the Eurostar mix, Elliott says.

"We used to have a separate range of premium spirits for the top passenger classes but the volumes were small and there was no merit in us continuing having two ranges of spirits. We only have one range for everyone, which is big brands and miniatures, and it's small quantities. People don't come to us and say 'why don't you have a bigger range of spirits?', either in first or standard."

And if they know what's good for them, they certainly don't ask for Cognac. ?


=== Eurostar key facts ===

Founded: 1994

Average number of Eurostar services to/from London and Paris/Brussels a day: 50

London to Paris journey time:

2 hours 15 minutes

Number of Eurostar trains: 27

Number of seats on each train: 750

Number of standard class seats: 544

Number of Business Premier and Leisure Select seats: 206

Number of 18.7cl bottles of wine consumed in 2007: 1.5 million

Number of 75cl bottles of Champagne consumed in 2007: 93,000

On-board price of 75cl bottle of Champagne: £30

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