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by Kris Ann Hegle

SBJ Contributing Writer

After a tough round, golfers in the dining room at Highland Springs Country Club have been known to mutter and point at their plates. These aren't ordinary plates. The border bears the schematic design of the 18 holes at Highland Springs, complete with sand traps, water and other hazards that can make a good golfer feel like an inept hacker.

The design, which is known as the 19th Hole Plate, was created by Vineyard Porcelain Inc. of Springfield. Vineyard Porcelain sells custom-designed tableware to private clubs and upscale restaurants nationwide, said Fritz Schaeffer, company president.

Locally, the company's decorative plates can be seen at restaurants such as Clary's American Grill and the Metropolitan Grill in Springfield and the Chateau on the Lake in Branson. Well-known national clients include the Atlanta National Golf Club in Alpharetta, Ga., the Coyote Cafe in Las Vegas and the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"This is really a niche market," Schaeffer said. "Our product is upscale and exclusive. It appeals to restaurants and clubs who want to make a style statement and distinguish themselves from the run of the mill."

Schaeffer has a wealth of experience in the custom tableware market. Before founding Vineyard Porcelain in 1991, he worked in the marketing and sales departments of Oneida and Tiffany & Co. in New York.

In 1992 Schaeffer, a Springfield native, and his wife Pamela, a journalist, returned to the Ozarks. Schaeffer managed his family's business, then in 1996, he decided to make Vineyard Porcelain his full-time endeavor.

To compete with large china manufacturers, Schaeffer said he makes sure his product is priced competitively. Some custom 12-inch plates cost less than brand-name china, Schaeffer said, because Vineyard has low overhead and is able to sell direct. Vineyard also doesn't require buyers to purchase a minimum quantity.

"If a restaurant or private club wanted to buy custom products from a large china distributor, such as Syracuse, they would have to buy anywhere from 400 to 1,200 plates," Schaeffer said. "We don't require a minimum quantity, and our customers never have to worry that their pattern will be discontinued."

For Schaeffer, the most difficult aspect of business takes place during the design process. Most of the work is created by local artists, including Schaeffer's daughter Ellen. Schaeffer himself has developed some colorful and imaginative designs.

Some clients give Schaeffer artwork that can be adapted to a plate format; some have trouble putting their vision into words. Occasionally, Schaeffer works from a sketch drawn on a piece of scrap paper or on the back of an envelope.

Ultimately, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and the client must approve the design before a test plate is made. Once the test plate is approved, production can begin.

Schaeffer uses several contract decorators, which are located nationwide, to produce the plates. During production, the decal is placed on each plate, fired and melted into the plate's glaze. Production and delivery take about six weeks, Schaeffer said.

"One of the bigger downsides to this business is the long lead time," Schaeffer said. "It usually takes about eight months between the time a client shows an interest and the time the custom plates are completed."

To even out his cash flow, Schaeffer has expanded his services by offering glassware and flatware. This has enabled Vineyard Porcelain to provide customers with a complete custom place setting.

Vineyard Porcelain also has added a series of stock designs. The stock designs such as the funky and upbeat Jazz Plate and the festively-colored Bluestar Plate cost a little less than custom-made plates and can be shipped quickly, he said.

Schaeffer also is working to promote and create a demand for his product through targeted advertising and by attending marketing trade shows. The company employs several agents who promote and sell Vineyard Porcelain in different regions of the country.

Like many new business owners, Schaeffer has struggled to increase business without increasing overhead. While Vineyard showed a profit as a part-time business, as a full-time venture, the company is struggling to get back into the black.

"This venture is only possible because my wife has a full-time job," Schaeffer said. "This has given us the opportunity to take the business from part-time to full-time."

VINYARD PORCELAIN:

Management style:

"Good design is good business."

Year Founded: 1991

Address and phone number: 2139 S. Berkshire Ave.;

882-1368 and (800) 331-8096.

Owner: Vineyard Porcelain Inc.

PHOTO CAPTION:

Fritz Shaeffer's Vineyard Porcelain designs plates for area companies like Clary's American Grill and Metropolitain Grill, as well as national companies such as the Coyote Cafe in Las Vegas.[[In-content Ad]]

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