2009-11-05 / Business News

Putting the ‘dinner’ back into the cruise

BY KATHY GREY kgrey@floridaweekly.com

Capt. Ralph Allen, Guy White and Michelle Schrank abord the Harbor Lady KATHY GREY/FLORIDA WEEKLY Capt. Ralph Allen, Guy White and Michelle Schrank abord the Harbor Lady KATHY GREY/FLORIDA WEEKLY Guy White and Michelle Schrank recently charted new territory on Charlotte Harbor with the launch of the Harbor Lady and Dinner Cruises Unlimited.

The 77-foot cruise ship offers Thursday lunch and dinner cruises. On Friday and Saturday, lunch, dinner and cocktail cruises are available and on Sunday, they offer a brunch buffet. And it all happens along Charlotte Harbor aboard the pristine Harbor Lady.

The Harbor Lady can carry 149 passengers, plus six crew members, but the partners try to keep the numbers at around 80; 120 for private parties.

Captain Ralph Allen of King Fisher Fleet has been a major advocate of the dinner cruises, and provides ticket operation services to the enterprise. Though he’s not an official partner in the business, Capt. Allen, with 30 years’ experience on local waters, is go-to man for Mr. White and Ms. Schrank.

“We’re not a legal partnership, but we’re contracting together,” Capt. Allen said. “I’m the ticketing agent (for the new venture). For the last 20 years, when people asked for a dinner cruise, I’ve had to refer them to Sarasota or Fort Myers.”

Harbor Lady is dovetailing into an established commodity with its association with Capt. Allen and King Fisher, which is a very good thing.

Harbor Lady partner Mr. White, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, has had his captain’s license for some time now.

“She (Ms. Schrank) commented to me one day, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have our own little dinner cruise boat in Punta Gorda?’ And this boat popped up.”

That’s when the adventure began. The boat had a successful run in West Palm Beach last year, and the operator traded it in for a larger vessel.

“This is the East Coast’s ‘starter boat,’ Mr. White said. “After a while, everybody goes bigger. At one time, (Harbor Lady) was Marina Jack’s first dinner cruise boat. Now they’re up to 103 feet.”

Mr. White and Ms. Schrank have two children each, most grown. “My oldest is J.T.,” Mr. White said of his 19-year-old. “He’s our man in the galley.”

Since the galley isn’t fully equipped for catering, lunch and dinner are prepared by chef Richard Faria of Wood Street Catering, and meticulously handled by J.T. White.

J.T. sailed through a local vocational culinary program, and has been invited into the esteemed culinary program at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island.

Mr. White’s younger son, Michael, a high school freshman, helps facilitates all aspects of the business on weekends.

The partners are hesitant to divulge information about their financial investment in the operation. “It’s horrifying,” Mr. White said with a chuckle. “When’s all is said and done, we’re about $2 million into it.”

Ms. Shrank’s background in financial administration and hospitality have served her well in the new venture. She can balance a budget and handle a wedding party.

“Basically,” she said, “We knew (the new venture) was going to take most of our time. If you think you’re going to start a business with an eight-hour day, you’re just fooling yourself.”

She’s grateful for the cooperation extended to Dinner Cruises Unlimited by the Punta Gorda City Council and Fishermen’s Village. And the pair is in awe of the enormous wealth of support for Harbor Lady extended by Capt. Allen.

On-board private events encompass everything from weddings to corporate icebreakers. The dinner cruises have partnered with KIX country (92.9-FM) for a monthly cruise with DJ entertainment and on-air broadcasts.

In November, the Harbor Lady will be host to the local Conquistadores as they cruise the harbor. On Dec. 5, the ship will play a sizeable role in the harbor boat parade.

And then there’s the New Year’s Eve party. For $50 a person, Dinner Cruises Unlimited will provide KIX DJ entertainment, substantial hors d’oeuvres, party hats and favors, cash bar and a champagne toast. Midnight fireworks from a barge stationed off Fishermen’s Village seal the deal.

What’s “cool” about the venture is its air-conditioned comfort. In off-season, when wilting heat and humidity threatens to keep cruisers in, the Harbor Lady’s A/C gives locals a reason to get out in comfort.

In addition, the managing trio has a lot to look forward to. “It’s getting ready to be an exciting time in this community,” Capt. Allen said. Market studies have proclaimed Punta Gorda as the next great thing along Florida’s west coast.

“It’s going to explode in the next two or three years,” he said.

“It’s sad to say that Hurricane Charley was the best thing that happened to the area,” Mr. White said, “but it forced urban renewal.”

“Things happen for reasons,” Ms. Schrank added. “Good comes out of everything that happens.” 

If you go

>>What: Harbor Lady cruises depart Fishermen’s
Village in Punta Gorda
>>Thursdays: lunch and dinner cruises
>>Fridays and Saturdays: lunch, dinner and
cocktail cruises
>>Sunday: brunch buffet cruise
>>Lunch: $35 per person
>>Dinner: $45 per person
>>Cocktail cruise: $10 per person
Cash bar. Seated dining. Sunday brunch is served
>>Info: www.dinnercruisesunlimited.com or call
639-0969 for reservations.

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