Water2Wine has new chef and is ready to cruise

When Jessica Courson was deciding whether she wanted to work for Water2Wine Cruises in the Tri-Cities in 2019, she was looking for a sign.

“I got off the phone with (then owner) Jay (Denney), and a song that used the words, ‘Turning water into wine’, came on,” Courson said. “Right then I decided, ‘Why not?’ ”

It’s been an interesting ride ever since, not only for Courson but for the company.

Water2Wine’s original owners were Jay Denney and David Landis, who knew each other in the cruise business.

In 2016, they bought a 94-foot yacht called the Chrysalis for $1.2 million in Naples, Florida, and started the company.

But within a few years, the pair sold the business to the Hoffman Family of Companies, based in Florida.

Hoffman Family owns numerous businesses around the world and runs many small cruise ships and yachts in Tennessee, Missouri and Minnesota, among other states.

Water2Wine offers various excursions – lunch, brunch, sunset dinner and private cruises – on the Columbia River, all of which last a few hours.

Currently, the company runs a 74-foot yacht from the Richland Columbia Point Marina called the West Star. The boat has three outdoor decks, two dining salons and a full-service bar.

Capacity on the boat, whether it’s a private cruise or public one, is about 80 people.

Courson, who started part time in Water2Wine’s front office, helping serve on the boat and ordering supplies, is now general manager.

“When Jay decided to retire, I stepped into his position,” she said. “Bri Brown moved into the director of finance position.”

The two women are the only employees left from the 2019 crew.

That’s what happens when you’re trying to survive a pandemic.

People line up to board the West Star for a Water2Wine dinner cruise at the Columbia Point Marina in Richland. (Photo by Ryan Jackman)

Getting through Covid-19

Water2Wine closed for nine months after the pandemic started, Courson said.

One thing helped save the day: Water2Wine had opened up its own commissary kitchen at 591 Stevens Drive in Richland.

It offers rentable kitchen space, as well as storage options. And the company offers four different rental plans.

“The chef at the time (Darren Dewalt) wanted to open the Flying Bowl Ramen House in the commissary, and we sold the food out of there,” Courson said.

Courson said that commissary has been a good avenue to make revenue, and Water2Wine currently has seven kitchen renters.

Water2Wine opened back up in 2021, but a rise in community Covid-19 cases shut it back down three months later.

“We got through the pandemic, but we didn’t have enough people working. Too many people still wanted to stay home,” Courson said.

The Small Business Administration made nearly 195,000 Paycheck Protection Program loans in Washington state totaling $18.2 billion.

W2W Acquisition LLC received two loans to retain 25 jobs, $111,938 in January 2021 and $97,400 in April 2020, according to Federal Pay, which tracks the loans based on SBA data.

Getting back to normal

 Business has been back to normal – pre-Covid normal – for the last six months.

“Our staff is back from anywhere from 18 to 20 employees,” Courson said.

The company also welcomed a new chef.

Water2Wine’s new chef, Janca Guerra, stands in the main dining room of the West Star. (Photo by Ryan Jackman)

Janca Guerra is a 2017 Othello High School graduate who attended the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute.

“She’s coming through with some great stuff,” Courson said. “She has a great chicken sandwich she’s created, as well as some outstanding tacos.”

The new spring menu was scheduled for release on May 5.

“We try to use as much local food as possible,” Courson said.

Entertainment will continue to be a draw on the cruises.

“Karaoke. You wouldn’t think we would do well with that but it’s popular,” Courson said. “We also have an ’80s-themed trivia night, comedy shows and we’re planning on eventually bringing back the murder mysteries show.”

Courson was so glad to have the radio inspiration on that day in 2019. She has enjoyed the ride.

“It’s fun to have this in the Tri-Cities. People enjoy being on the water,” she said.

Water2Wine: 509-578-1717; water2winecruises.com; 591 Stevens Drive, Richland.

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