Company gives sports fans a hand

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ask what business Savage-based Alpha Products is in, and you'll get as many answers as there are Attman brothers with the title of vice president.

"We're in the business of helping concessionaires at stadiums and arenas sell more of their products," says David Attman.

"We're in the graphics business, and our products help make a night at the ballpark more memorable," says Steven Attman.

"We design unique packaging solutions for vendors, and sometimes the solutions solve problems the vendors didn't know they had until we showed them," says Ronald Attman.

This month, after a three-year patent battle, Alpha Products is in business for the first time as the exclusive source of a fold-out snack and drink tray that is one of the hottest things going on behind the bleachers.

The patent battle, over a heavy-duty tray Alpha designed and put into use for the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, ended last month in a seven-day jury trial and a verdict against Rock-Tenn Co., a Georgia paper products maker that Alpha accused of stealing its design and its customers.

Why go to court to fight over a cardboard tray?

Because the company believes it can piggyback entire product lines -- pizza boxes, nacho chip trays, hot dog wrappers and giant drink cups, all designed to fit the tray -- into sports arenas and concert venues once it gets the tray in the door.

"This is our key growth driver, and we are positioned to move ahead quickly now that it clearly belongs to us," said James P. Haire, also a vice president of Alpha.

Since its debut at Camden Yards, the tray has been adopted by concessionaires at 11 other major league baseball stadiums, the homes of the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers, Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates.

The tray was designed to solve a problem that both fans and concessionaires had been feeling but neither had articulated -- how to carry a family's drinks and snacks back to the seat without making the whole family miss half an inning of the O's.

Both snacks and drink cups had outgrown the trays that were on the market by 1990. The time had come for sturdier cardboard, bigger holes to hold cups that had grown to 32 ounces, and space in the middle to hold not only hot dogs but also nacho trays and personal pizzas.

Once designed, the tray quickly sold itself.

"One demonstration, and the executives from ARA, which operates the concessions at Camden Yards, decided right then and there they would use it for the first season when the Orioles moved," Mr. Haire said.

Since then, other baseball concessionaires have seen what ARA saw -- visions of how much more they could sell if one person could carry more back to the seat.

And executives at Alpha have begun to see visions of virtually unlimited sales.

"We've only begun to move to other places, football, hockey, basketball, and concerts -- we did all the concession packaging for the 25th anniversary Woodstock festival in 1994 -- and we haven't even had time to explore other possible users, such as fast-food chains and hospitals," Steven Attman said.

Alpha Products happened in 1985, a byproduct of the three Attman brothers' growing up in the paper products business.

Their father, Ed Attman, is founder and president of Acme Paper and Products Inc., one of the Baltimore area's biggest paper products warehousing and distribution firms, and all three brothers work for Acme and run Alpha out of Acme's Savage headquarters.

With Rock-Tenn cutting into its key snack-tray patent, and with baseball and hockey strikes cutting into key markets, Alpha was forced to rely heavily on other items, such as a plastic nacho tray with its cheese compartment pinched at the bottom to hold down the concessionaire's expenses for the most costly part of the snack.

They also capitalized on fast turnarounds by some of their manufacturers, which enabled them to offer nimble timing to design and deliver souvenir cups for one-of-a-kind events such as Pittsburgh Penguins hockey playoff games.

Largely on sheer agility, a talent for products even their customers didn't know they needed, and a network of connections with factories and concessionaires, they managed sales of "several million dollars" last year, though they decline to be more specific.

Despite the visions it gives them, they and Mr. Haire don't yet dare let their concession tray tempt them out of the agility business.

Next up: a Cal Ripken souvenir soda-pop cup for September 5 and 6, the days he is expected to tie and then break Lou Gehrig's record of playing in 2,130 consecutive baseball games.

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