HOTEL & MOTEL MANAGEMENT

AN EDGELL PUBLICATION The newspaper for the lodging industry

Louisiana Boats Keep Buffets Afloat

By Sharon Donovan
H&MM contributing Editor

New Orleans--While the dismal economic climate has affected most companies here, one enterprising businessman has found a way to sail out of depression and into the relatively smooth waters of the hotel-foodservice industry

Chapman's boats are used in hotel-foodservice displays throughout the United States

Ron Chapman, owner of a boat- building company that bears his name, fits that metaphor quite literally: He tacked out of the stormy seas of building recreational boats when financially strapped customers' discretionary funds evaporated.

As sales dropped more than 40 percent between 1985 and 1987, Chapman shifted his business into the previously uncharted waters of building boats designed to keep food displays afloat for the hotel industry's food-and-beverage service.

About 25 percent of Chapman's boat-building profits come from providing downsized boats to hotels that use them to display seafood, salad bars and for other purposes.

The boats are currently in hotels in 31 states and the District of Columbia.. Chapman said catering managers have found them to be ideal for displaying seafood buffets and

surviving it long the beating that dishes take in commercial kitchens.

INNOCENT BEGINNINGS

The business began innocently several years ago when Chapman made a small boat as a birthday present for a friend's daughter. The friend thought the gift would make an ideal display unit for hotels and showed it to yet another friend who was a marketing manager for a major hotel. The hotel executive promptly placed an order for 18 models.

At the time, Chapman still considered the hotel business a sideline segment of his boat-building company. But when the oil and gas industry took a dive--and took most of Chapman's business with it--he began to capitalize on what the hotels saw as a unique product.

He added more products: three sizes of pirogues (a cross between a rowboat and a canoe used almost exclusively to navigate Louisiana's swamps), two skiffs and a seashell. A scaled-down, 6-foot pirogue sells for $125, or about half the price of a full-size, 14-foot pirogue. A 28- inch model goes for $20.

Although it takes about as long to build a small boat as it does a full sized-one. the materials are signifi- cantly less costly. Other costs are also relatively stable, Chapman said. He still has only two employees, and molds for the boats last for years.

INHERENT ADVANTAGES

The advantages Chapman cites on the production line are the ones hotel managers point to as well. "We've been using them for years," said Fred Bijou,

purchasing director for the New Orleans Hilton. "This is a different concept altogether."

The Hilton uses its boats for Friday seafood buffets. It fills them with ice and spreads shrimp, oysters-on- the-half-shell, crayfish and crabs on top Bijou said.

"They're neat," said John Gregory, banquet manager for the Albuquerque (N.M.) Marriott. "They're great for decorations and they hold a lot of seafood."

MEMORABLE REQUEST

Invariably, Chapman gets all kinds of inquiries in his business, but he said an order placed some time ago by a New York hotel- manager's secretary still stands out in his mind.

"She seemed very confused when she called to order six 6- foot-long pirogues," Chapman said, adding after she made the order, she explained her quandary. "It turned out she was Polish, and pirogues sound like pirogi, a Polish pastry. She couldn't figure out why her boss wanted 6-foot-long pastries"

Chapman's boats continue to roll off the line. The most recent in auction to the fleet is a 5-foot-long sailboat with a 6- foot-high sail has a small transparent window showcase the name of the party's host. Just released two months the sailboat already has generated orders, Chapman said.

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