Last Thursday's guest luncheon at the Shell Factory was a combination state-of-the-factory address, luncheon and victory lap.
While nearly everybody who is somebody dined on stuffed chicken, Tom and Pam Cronin discussed how great the past year was for the company, a year that saw double-digit growth across the board, as well as thank the many people responsible for that growth.
Among those present were State Reps. Dane Eagle, Ray Rodriguez and Heather Fitzenhagen, State Sen. Lizbeth Benequisto, and county commissioners Cecil Pendergrass and Frank Mann.
There also were some of the inhabitants of the Nature Park, a popular draw, as well as those who care for them.
"There's no such thing as a free lunch. You have to listen to us," Tom Cronin said while wearing a mullet cap as a token of Halloween celebration.
Marketing director Rick Tupper told the crowd that the Shell Factory's overall profits were up 15 percent from last year, with the stores up 14 percent, the restaurant 17 percent and the nature park a whopping 31 percent.
"We are most enthused about the Nature Park; people love that you can get up close to the animals, and that the staff is so knowledgeable," Pam Cronin said. "The restaurant has great staff and it's growing and we're bringing in more of the local community."
Nearly 600,000 people visited the Shell Factory last year, making it the 10th largest destination in the state, and the largest in Lee County.
"Before, this place was considered a tourist trap. Now, we're making this into a family entertainment destination in Southwest Florida," Tupper said. "We're getting more families and more non-seasonal business."
And even with the sharp increases in business, the Cronins aren't sitting on their laurels, as they have new things planned
A fossil museum is slated to open in 2014, and the Shell Factory will offer pony and camel rides, one of the only places in the region that will offer them, as well as a butterfly garden.
"I've learned from the big boys that you can't stop. I have to keep offering them new attractions to keep them coming back," Tom Cronin said.
The Shell Factory still has the largest shell store in the world, as well as one of the largest collections of taxidermy animals and among the largest restaurants around, with seating for up to 500 people.
Among the biggest sources of pride for the Cronins is the Nature Park and its foundation, which foots the bill for transportation for Lee County students who want to take field trips there.
"A lot of money had been cut from the budget for trips, so we tried to help raise funds for that. It costs about $150 for a bus trip," Pam Cronin said. "That's a lot over five years and 13,000 children."
The Shell Factory will hold one of its big signature events, the Environmental Foundation fundraiser on Nov. 16 to raise more funds for that cause.
Fitzenhagen said she is a supporter of any tourism venue in her area and that the Cronins have done a great job at the Shell Factory.
"Everyone has pulled together and doing a great job. Our tourism department, the owners, the economy is improving and our advertising is working," Fitzenhagen said.
Eagle has been a lifelong supporter of the Shell Factory, having gone there since kindergarten on field trips.
"Every time they have an event like this I want to show my support. We're always thankful for those in the private sector who can help us overcome the economic stresses," Eagle said. "The Cronins are amazing and the community is lucky to have them."