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Former gaming employees seize business opportunities in Biloxi

BILOXI — Kay Shafer came to the Coast in 1989 because of gaming, but that’s not what’s keeping her here. She stays because she thinks the business climate is fantastic.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “The future for Biloxi is so bright, if you looked at it head on, it would blind you.”

She and husband Chuck Shafer are the owners of a restaurant, Thai Passion, and 15 rental houses. She says they are currently thinking about four other ventures and will continue to look at business ventures here.

Shafer, a Panama City, Fla., native, worked on cruise ships before moving here. On the Coast, she worked for the passage of the first dockside gaming campaign and was a card dealer on the Southern Elegance that sailed out of Gulfport before permanent gaming barges were allowed. She has worked for the President Casino, Palace Casino and Beau Rivage Casino Resort in capacities that include floor supervisor for table games, pit manager and casino host. As a table games instructor, she trained 500 dealers for new casinos before they opened.

After 17 years in the business, she was ready to be her own boss. She and Chuck, who’ve been married 11 years, met here. He came from Nevada and spent 27 years in gaming. Both were ready for a business opportunity. They purchased a lot on Pass Road and were negotiating with Dairy Queen to operate a franchise.

Sharing a passion for Thai food and unable to find a Thai restaurant here, the two started re-thinking the kind of business they would open.

“I couldn’t believe there was no Thai restaurant here,” Kay Shafer said. “Usually there is one near an Air Force base because of the military’s connection with Asia. It’s wonderful food and I’ve eaten it in 30 different cities.”

She counted nine Thai restaurants listed in the New Orleans telephone book and six in Fort Walton Beach and thought that at least one could survive in Biloxi. The location of the Shafers’ lot, close to the Pass Road gate for Keesler Air Force Base and where 40,000 cars per day pass, seemed like an ideal spot for a Thai restaurant.

They had rehabilitated rental houses, but constructing the restaurant building was their first project from the ground up. Chuck served as general contractor. Kay has been cooking Thai food for 25 years, since a Thai neighbor introduced her to the cuisine when she lived in Australia. She created the menu, and the restaurant and bar, seating 60 people, opened in April of 2003 as — what else? — Thai Passion.

Chuck is the hands-on manager and Kay supervises food preparation and menu changes. She says there are dishes on the menu that won’t be found anywhere else. She is also a competition chef and has won five medals in the past year at American Culinary Federation sanctioned events.

For Debbie and Leslie Clark, it’s half-and-half. He still works in gaming as director of operations for Casino Magic in Biloxi, and she has started her own business supplying frozen meats such as chicken breasts, bacon and pork chops to casino restaurants. The couple moved here in 1992.

A former restaurant manager and food and beverage manager at Casino Magic and Beau Rivage Casino Resort, Clark has the background to be successful with Fiorello Food Supply, LLC, named for her family. It means “little flower” in Italian.

“I wanted to be in business for myself and decided to do this after going to a conference about the need for minority and women-owned businesses to service casinos on the Coast,” she said. “There is not a chef on the Coast I don’t know and it seemed like a good opportunity for me.”

Her business is only a few months old, but Clark is already thinking of adding more food items to her lineup, foods that casino restaurants can buy every three or four months and freeze. Fiorello Foods is presently located within Gulf Coast Produce in Biloxi.

“I want to get my own trucks too and keep my name out there,” Clark said.

Kris Kent moved to Biloxi to work at Beau Rivage via New Orleans where he worked for Harrah’s Casino, and Bay St. Louis where he worked for Casino Magic. The former blackjack and poker dealer and pit boss opened Planet Beach Tanning Salon in April 2003.

“It’s doing well,” said Bebe Deleon, Kent’s girl friend. “He fits the type who would own a Planet Beach. He stays tan and in shape.” Kent said, “I wanted to be in business for myself, so I did the homework and talked to a lot of people. I researched Planet Beach and felt I wanted to be a part of that. They have 400 franchises worldwide.”

The salon owner is optimistic about business opportunities in Biloxi and says he would love to own a gym someday.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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