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On the American Queen: Food service

Sunday, I met Jeff Krida, CEO of the Great American Steamboat Co., on a shore excursion, and I asked him how he thought things were going on the American Queen as he prepares for the boat's christening on Friday.

Krida said he had hoped the performance of the boat and crew would be at 90 percent by now. With a new crew and a ship that has been in mothballs for almost four years, he hadn't expected 100 percent at this point. But, he said, progress has been slower than he hoped, especially when it came to dining, which he said was at about 78 percent.

This was of great interest to me, since Topic A with my tablemates is food and food service, which has been pretty haphazard. Most of us are fairly good-natured about the situation, in large part because the staff is friendly and works hard, and because we've seen improvement. Adjustments have been made in response to guests' complaints. But there is a certain amount of exasperation.

Every night at our 8 p.m. seating has been a race between dessert and the 10 p.m. show in the theater; usually we have to choose one or the other. The wait staff can't seem to keep straight who ordered what, and we are regularly served each other's entrees and salads. Most of us thought breakfast and lunch were buffet-only, and only learned a few days into the trip that we can also order from a menu that no one had seen. Just this morning, the waiter forgot my orange juice and the cream for my coffee.

I'm not saying that dining is an unpleasant experience. The food is well-conceived and varied, and there are enough choices for the one who avoids spicy foods, the one doesn't eat red meat, the one who likes to try new dishes, and the one who doesn't like vegetables. Although few dishes have risen to the level of excellent, most are good -- although on our first night, the pompano was so bland that even the diner who avoids spicy food was dismayed.

But there is always some joking at the beginning of our meal -- will the waiter forget to serve bread again, how many times will someone have to ask for bottled water, will service be so slow that we miss the 10 p.m. Dixieland jazz show.

One reason the settling in is taking so long, Krida said, is that the company hired more for attitude than experience. His reasoning was that he could teach staff members job skills but he couldn't teach them a friendly, positive demeanor. So some dining room staff has no previous experience in food service.

If he had to do it again, he said, he'd hire more staff with restaurant experience. And, he added, some senior staff members have been hired and will be joining the crew over the next few days.

I appreciate Krida's reasoning in hiring people for attitude rather than experience -- we've all commented on how friendly the staff is and how helpful they try to be. But if the company wants to do that again, it needs to factor in more training time before there are paying guests on board.