CocoLoco’s Gift Shop serves up souvenirs, sundries and more for Catfish Bend Casino and Fun City Resort.

June 13, 2024

CocoLoco’s Gift Shop takes its name from the early days of the Catfish Bend Casino when the gifts were an afterthought and the coffee was king.

Originally a coffee shop, those who wandered into the 712-square-foot space would find small treasures like playing cards, hats, pens and magnets. However, the focus rested more on selling pastries and coffee.

“Eventually, the gift section kind of overtook the coffee and pastry shop and it’s grown into what it is today,” says Chris Moraniec, supervisor of CocoLoco’s Gift Shop inside the Burlington, Iowa, casino.

The operation made land in 2007 after beginning as a riverboat casino in 1994. In addition to the casino, an entire complex has grown up around it, including Fun City Resort, three hotels, countless dining options, a spa, a water park, arcade, bowling alley, convention and event center and more to come, according to the company’s website. In the works are a ninja course and a giant indoor jungle gym for kids. And since it keeps growing, the gift shop will soon be relocated to a 990-square-foot space, says Moraniec.

“Right now, I’m in a hallway and I didn’t have any growth potential as far as construction and where it’s located,” she explains. “Sometime this spring we’ll be moving to a larger area and it will be located right outside the casino.”

Offering a great variety

CocoLoco’s may no longer serve coffee and pastries, but the retailer offers plenty of drinkware options for customers.
Photos: Joe Jolin
Since she took over as supervisor and buyer for the gift shop in 2008, Moraniec has been thoughtfully and tastefully creating vignettes using some of her bestselling merchandise, like RS Covenant jewelry and name-drop apparel for both the casino and the resort.

With aspirations of being a window dresser and with a background in retail management, Moraniec never misses an opportunity to tell a story through her displays, connect with a customer, or showcase the finest wines and apparel Iowa has to offer.

In fact, Moraniec points out, “Iowa gaming and racing laws require that every Iowa casino has a gift shop and that 85% of the merchandise has to be either manufactured or distributed from within the state.”

For this reason, Iowa Hawkeye football apparel manufactured in Perry, Iowa; Almost Famous Popcorn Co. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Arden Creek wine made in Letts, Iowa, are essential to the gift shop’s identity.

Moraniec relies on Accessorize Me, a distributor in Dubuque, Iowa, for purses, ponchos, shawls, totes and jewelry.

From neighboring Minnesota, Abdallah, a fifth-generation chocolatier, captures the attention of those with a sweet tooth. In addition to the ever-popular butter caramel which stands out as the most sought-after flavor, the company also serves up rock candy and sugar-free options sure to tempt any palette.

“I don’t like carrying them because it’s too tempting,” she says jokingly.

National brands like Aurora World plush and Ganz giftware fill the rich wooden shelves that wrap around the shop’s perimeter while flip-flops, magnets, shot glasses, stickers, ornaments, dice, forgotten toiletries and snacks grace the cash wrap and end caps throughout the store.

Since the space has never received a makeover, remnants of the coffee shop, like a back counter and service counter, have been repurposed to showcase spinner racks for jewelry like Fahlo and Pura Vida bracelets.

“The Pura Vida and Fahlo are my got-to-have-them items because I knew they were up-and-coming and trendy, especially with the younger crowd,” Moraniec notes.

CocoLoco’s may no longer serve coffee and pastries, but the retailer offers plenty of drinkware options for customers.

To please both casino and resort crowds, Moraniec tries to provide a splash of everything and then some. For instance, for young kids, stuffed animals reign supreme while coloring books and crayons offer something to do on the car ride home. For preteens, Moraniec notes, Pura Vida jewelry and small crossbody purses make for great accessories while older individuals gravitate toward shawls and similar items.

“I try to keep everybody in mind, I don’t really have a target,” she admits. “I’m kind of something for everyone.”

Her strategy pays off, as she notes the most common compliments from visitors are the great variety and reasonable prices.

For those who frequent the casino, a player’s card allows visitors to earn points that are redeemable on hotel rooms as well as merchandise in the gift shop — a perk that stretches the family dollar while on vacation.
“Nothing’s worse than spending the money to spend the weekend — especially a family-oriented place — and paying $40 or $50 for a T-shirt,” Moraniec explains. “So, when they visit us, they’re able to take home a piece of their weekend at a decent price.”

An information booth of sorts

Knowing what makes customers tick is just one of the many of talents Moraniec and the three other casino gift shop employees possess. Another key to success is being aware of local attractions and other nearby destinations.

“With a casino, you have more leisure travelers, so you need to know a little bit about your community, the things that are offered and the events going on,” she explains.

For instance, Moraniec likes to direct guests to downtown Burlington to check out Snake Alley, a contender for the most crooked street in the country. The street made entirely of limestone and blue clay bricks spans 275 feet and consists of five half-curves and two quarter- curves, according to the website.

Chris Moraniec, supervisor of CocoLoco’s Gift Shop, loves arranging eye-catching displays.

“I think you need to be more knowledgeable and help people find their way around and direct them to other things that they might be find entertaining,” Moraniec notes. “So, we keep a list of events, not only what’s going on in the city, but what’s going on here around the complex.”

With the addition of basketball and pickleball courts opening last October to host tournaments, Moraniec may need a list to direct visitors’ attention to all of the changes underway.

In addition to a new gift shop and renovated hotel, the casino itself is also headed for a makeover while a new restaurant, shake counter and coffee shop are also in the works, Moraniec says.

With the extra space, Moraniec is setting her sights on new product lines with beach towels, swimsuits and sports jerseys and apparel at the top of her list.

“I’m excited for the new gift shop space, as well as the complex improvements and additions,” she admits. “Whether it’s a day visit or overnight stay, I want to give our guests a great experience.”

Although guest interaction and great customer service are just two of many hats Moraniec wears, her passion lies in building the displays that draw visitors in for a chat.

“I like making things appealing and eye-catching,” she explains. “I like working closely with the vendor to get our T-shirts printed locally.”

For a woman with a dream of dressing windows and working in retail, one might say she’s hit the jackpot. And she goes all in making sure visitors walk away from CocoLoco’s Gift Shop feeling the same way.