Mark Greksa | Crain's Denver

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mark Greksa

Background:  

Launched in 1999, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad offers year-round tourist train trips along the Arkansas River west of Cañon City, including murder mysteries and various other special events throughout the year. It carries approximately 120,000 passengers per year.

The Mistake:

I waited too long to make a big change.

When we started out, we had a concession cart selling food and drinks to our coach-class cars. Most trains like ours offered something similar, and I never liked it. The food we were serving wasn’t up to my standards. We had food you would find in an amusement park or something like that: hot dogs, popcorn, chips, etc. I consider it garbage food now. It didn’t jibe with everything else we were doing.

We were doing four-course dinners to our first-class passengers and three-course lunches in our Vista Dome class. I remember thinking, people in coach class should have the option of ordering off the menu everyone else gets a chance to experience.

I always knew we could do it better, but I wasn’t sure how it would work. Coach-class passengers make up almost 40 percent of our ridership and the food and beverage service makes up a big portion of our bottom line every year – around 35 percent. It was a big risk.

Four years ago, we made the change. I decided to get rid of our concession car. I had 120 people working for me, and everyone was nervous. Were people going to be willing to pay more for a better product? It was an investment too; we had to build two more kitchens to be able to serve people in a timely manner.

It was a stressful transition, but we did it and it worked. Looking back, I wish we had done it sooner. It really has taken off.

I wish I could turn back the clock and do this from the beginning.

The Lesson:

We’re doing something that no one else in our industry is doing. It separates us from the pack.

What are people willing to spend to experience a wine pairing, with five entrees and five specially chosen – and expensive – wines? Are people willing to spend $200 per seat for that? You have to find the line, and you have to sell your customers.

Once you talk to people about how we’re using grass-fed beef and how it’s locally sourced from here in Colorado, people understand. And once they bite into it, the difference is clear.

I’m 53. I’ve been going at a thousand miles per hour building this train over the past 18 years. We built and we built. As you get older, there are times when you look back at the tough times and wonder how you got through.

In this particular instance, it was an opportunity to improve the business on all fronts, it just took a little boldness. I’m lucky that I still have this aggressive attitude after all this time. Sometimes, you have to be bold.

You can follow Royal Gorge Route Railroad on Twitter at @royalgorgeroute.

Photo courtesy of Royal Gorge Route Railroad.

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email cberman@crain.com.

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's Denver.