Ferry food service marks anniversary

One year after the first concessions and seven months after on-board food service returned to Washington State Ferries, some of the vendors providing that service see room for improvement.

“We’re not getting the numbers that we expected,” said Andy Moussouras, owner of Alaska’s Gourmet Subs. “We’re not meeting our projections. People see this as a tunnel on their way home. They all walk by, but I can’t figure out how to get them to stop.”

Moussouras has used his imagination to meet this goal. He often walks out in the crowd to give them free samples and introduces himself to customers sitting on the polished metallic tables outside his shop. In many cases he’ll offer them a free drink.

Presumably, these generous acts will translate into paying customers.

“I have to catch this ferry,” said one commuter. “But I’ll remember that you offered.”

In fall 2004, the only on-premises food merchant was a downstairs McDonalds. Today, Alaska’s Gourmet Subs shares the pier with a newsstand, WorldWrapps, Café Appassionato, Candy Lane, Gourmet Hot Dogs and — perhaps the biggest success story — Commuter Comforts.

Commuter Comforts has some real advantages, being open until midnight and serving beer and wine along with a full menu. It also provides free wireless service, giving commuters a place to unwind after work, have a beer and check their e-mail.

Regular patrons compare it to a neighborhood bar.

“This is a great place,” said Kevin Daniel of Bainbridge Island, a daily commuter who comes in nearly every night. “You can get here 10 minutes before the boat and grab a beer. But the best part is that you don’t get mad when you miss a boat anymore. There are even times when I’ve come down early to have a beer.”

The bartenders say it’s common for someone to arrive for a certain boat and postpone their departure because they’re having too much fun.

“There was a guy here last night who missed three boats,” one said.

Commuter Comforts can also sell beer by the can, for people who don’t have the time to stop. This is especially convenient for late commuters, since on-board service — which also sells beer and wine — closes down after the 8 p.m. boat.

Commuters have a choice of wireless signals, using either Commuter Comforts or Mobilisa, whichever is stronger. In any case, the tables in the waiting area are often full of people using their computers as they enjoy a snack or a meal.

“Before the remodeling, no one wanted to be at Colman Dock,” said WSF spokeswoman Celia Shore. “But this is a real success story. People are out there studying, reading and using their laptops. It’s quite an amazing change.”

In late May, Cascade Concessions began operating the on-board galleys after 14 months of inactivity. Contract negotiations with the Inlandboatmen’s Union took the most time. Still, the company didn’t expect to make a profit right out of the gate. And it took until September to begin food service on the system’s longest run, Bremerton to Seattle.

Company president Nove Meyers said he is “comfortably breaking even.” He is aware that January is the slowest month and is prepared for that inevitability.

“Did we make money today? I really can’t say,” he said. “We would like to be doing better. But we’re matching the percentages and projections of what was here before.”

The ships serve predictable galley fare, with a few enhancements. Fair Trade coffee is on the menu, along with a different local wine each month. And while Coors beer is available, it rotates the availability of other regional brews.

The 8 p.m. closure, early for many riders, is necessitated by union regulations and profit considerations. Meyers, however, said he’d like to stay open later for special events during the summer, as soon as he can develop a workable schedule.

That Cascade is matching the sales levels of the previous vendor, Sodexho, is actually a success story because Sodexho didn’t compete with a land-based food court for commuter business.

Three vendors — WorldWrapps, Café Appassionato and Gourmet Hot Dogs — have opened limited-menu kiosks at parking lot level, making it possible for drivers to grab a bite without having to climb the stairs to the food court (the path to the food court from the parking lot is somewhat circuitous).

WSF selected these vendors for the prime position. It doesn’t increase the rent, which is based on a sliding percentage of gross income.

Moussouras, who was not selected to run a kiosk on the building’s north side, is less enthuisatic now than when he first arrived a year ago, promising delicacies like fresh halibut sandwiches and reindeer sausage (although he didn’t serve the sausage during the Christmas season because, “We didn’t want people to think they were eating Rudolph”).

Unlike WorldWrapps and CandyLane, Alaska Gourmet Subs doesn’t benefit from being part of a chain. Moussouras gets by with a contract for Mariners home games and is currently searching for venture capital.

“I’m a fighter, although I get discouraged,” he said. “But I have hope. As soon as the spring rolls around and the stadium opens, I will find the money to open more stores.”

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