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Here's a riddle:

How many shrimp does it take to feed a shipload of people for a week?

About 2,000 pounds worth, that's how much. And try 28,000 bottles and cans of beer to wash it all down with.

It's no secret cruises are famous for keeping passengers fat and happy. Though there are more healthy options on board than ever, from sushi to salads and fruit smoothies, no matter how you slice it there's a whole lot of eating going on. And behind the scenes, there's a whole lot of planning that goes into making sure all the restaurants are well stocked --- no small feat considering today's largest ships may offer as many as 10 different dining venues and more than 20 bars and lounges for upwards of 2,000 to 3,000 passengers (and more) per cruise.

"It all starts with the guests and what they like to eat," says John L. Weis, director, Logistics and Material Control, for both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, sister companies.

And from there, a giant food chain is born.

The very point of a cruise is for passengers to sit back, relax and drink pina coladas all day, without a care in the world. For the ship's crew and the cruise line's shoreside staff, on the hand, their mission is to facilitate the logistical ballet that goes into getting that lobster tail on thousands of plates at dinnertime.

It's a colossal undertaking to see that each ship is properly provisioned with thousands of pounds of food and case upon case of soft drinks, beer and bottled water, not to mention all the linens, china, glassware and other items needed to keep the entire operation humming along. It's an enormous challenge to coordinate orders and shipments with hundreds of different suppliers. That's a lot of paperwork when you consider, for example, that the combined fleets of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity add up to 29 ships.

"I can't think of another operation that serves 3,000 breakfasts, lunches and dinners every single day, seven days a week. I can't think of a single hotel or dining room in Florida that serves more meals," Weis says.

Royal Caribbean's director of food & beverage operations, classically-trained culinary chef Frank Weber and his team, are the ones who handle everything food and beverage related that's executed on board the ships, from the recipes to the wine lists, menu design, selection of china, special promotions, and crew and management training.

"Frank's group has certain specifications that need to be met for their recipes and venues, and we have to get them the product they want," says Weis.

Week after week, the fleets are provisioned at the start of each cruise in ports throughout the world, from Miami and Port Canaveral, to Los Angeles, San Juan, Venice, Barcelona and Vancouver.

The day of reckoning is when all the advanced planning pays off.

A heck of a lot needs to happen between the time a ship gets into port, generally around 6 or 7am, and when it departs again for a new cruise, typically 4 to 5pm the same day. Before new guests start boarding around 11:30 or 12 noon, cabins must be cleaned as well as back of the house areas like galleys and pantries. Food production for the next cruise must be staged, broken china and glassware replaced, and equipment like coffee machines and dishwashing machines serviced. Paperwork's got to be filed with local authorities and thousands and thousands of pieces of luggage off loaded. Simultaneously, garbage is being offloaded while the ship is hooked up for fuel and water bunkering, and provisions are being loaded from 15 to 20 tractor-trailers. The inventory manager and provision manager are pier side to supervise loading, the food & beverage manager comes down to check on progress, and the executive chef or sous chef is there to inspect the quality and freshness of the delivered products before they are loaded. By noon, the new guests' luggage is being loaded and the restaurants begin serving lunch.

Phew! It's a huge production carried out in a tight little window.

But long before it gets to the point when container loads of pineapples and chicken legs are pier side to be loaded and stowed, an army of suppliers had to be sourced, contracted and lined up for duty.

"My job starts when the itinerary is issued. I have to figure out the strategy of how to supply it," says Henry Lopez, director of food and beverage purchasing for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity.

Lopez's group handles nearly 3,000 purchase orders a week for 19 ships loading in more than 30 different ports around the world.

"There aren't that many suppliers to choose from given the volumes we need," says Weber, adding that the suppliers need to handle delivering to places other than Miami, for example Vancouver and Los Angeles. He adds that for the most part they only buy food in the United States, from controlled sources that are FDA inspected. "Even for our Europe-based vessels, we ship most frozen and dry food products from the U.S. to our ships in Barcelona, Venice or Southampton," he says.

The commodity specialists in Lopez's team are responsible for sourcing and pricing more than 10,000 items for both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, from beef to seafood, dairy, vegetables, wine, china, linen and uniforms.

It's a tremendous amount of information to keep track of that requires the management of vast databases and master lists for each item and market. There's also the entire transportation web to consider --- what gets shipped where and how --- plus consumption trends and the distribution of goods.

"It's all a matter of teamwork. Every link in the chain is important," Weis says.

"We have to rely on third parties, from the suppliers to the truck drivers, outside logistics people, and the port agents who help get containers delivered. There are lots of different players involved, lots of different people that touch the process. If one thing goes wrong, it affects the whole system," Weis explains.

Though it's rare, if a shipment is held up and won't make it to the vessel in time, Weis says contingency plans include sourcing locally if possible, getting the goods to the next port for pick up, utilizing the safety stock on board each ship, or the last resort (and the most expensive option), air freighting the supplies to the ship.

"It doesn't happen very often," Weis comments. "Out of 8,000 containers, we missed only 10 last year. That's an A+++ rating."

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