Business Monday

All American Gator Products: Hollywood firm turns alligators into handbags, belts, meals

Brian Wood’s company All American Gator Products makes and sells alligator fashion items, including purses, jackets and belts in a variety of colors, in the Hollywood store and online. The company also sells alligator meat to restaurants.
Brian Wood’s company All American Gator Products makes and sells alligator fashion items, including purses, jackets and belts in a variety of colors, in the Hollywood store and online. The company also sells alligator meat to restaurants. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Alligators come in red, blue, purple, orange and black at Brian Wood’s Exotic Leather Center store in Hollywood.

At least their hides do.

Wood, the founder and owner of All American Gator Products Inc., sits at his desk in the company’s Hollywood retail store and workshop next to a wall draped with alligator hides tanned into a variety of colors. The hides, as well as snake and lizard skins hanging nearby, will be made into belts, handbags, wallets, purses, jackets, briefcases and other accessories for customers.

“We can produce anything made of leather,” Wood said. “Our alligator hide clothing items are custom made and we produce leather for furniture, seat covers for cars and motorcycle seats — which are very popular,” said Wood, who established the company in 1989 and runs it with his sons, Jake and Chris. “We also make a ‘Gator orange’ for University of Florida fans.”

All American Gator Products buys alligators from legal nuisance trappers, hunters and participants in annual statewide alligator harvests, skins them at the company’s Arcadia plant, sends the hides to a tannery, and packs and freezes the meat for sale to restaurants and distributors.

Alligator hunters at the state-sponsored annual public hunts often use a harpoon and line to secure the animal, killing it quickly with a spring-loaded “bang stick” that fires a .44 Magnum bullet into the gator’s head.

Aside from acquiring nuisance gators from certified trappers — that is, gators that turn up in someone’s swimming pool and have to be captured — All American Gator gets much of its raw material from the annual hunts. “These hunts are just trying to maintain the population,” said Wood, who has been hunting and skinning gators for years. Florida’s alligator programs have been very successful in restoring the gator population, and now the hunts are aimed at controlling it, he said.

“We take the big gators that are cannibalistic and eat the babies and females,” said Wood, whose company is regulated by federal, state and local entities.

Originally from Bedford, Massachusetts, Wood moved to Florida in 1989 to teach scuba diving. “I was more of an ocean guy than a swamp guy,” said Wood, who has been diving and spear fishing since he was a teenager. In 1989, he and a group of friends obtained 15 permits (CITES tags) from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allowing them to participate in the annual alligator hunt. The group caught 15 gators, and Woods kept the entire catch.

Wood skinned the gators, packaged and froze the meat and salted the hides, later taking them to Georgia to be tanned. To sell the 800 pounds of meat, Wood drove to the Keys, stopping at restaurants along the way. He also went to leather stores to offer the hides. “I saw that these shops would pay me $35 for a fat gator hide, and were selling gator belts for $300. They could make several belts out of one hide. That’s when I saw a business opportunity,” Wood said.

In 1989, Wood decided to get into the alligator hide and meat business himself. He founded All American Gator Products, set up a small processing center in Belle Glade and started acquiring gators from hunters and trappers, the annual statewide hunt and from his own family’s participation in the yearly hunt.

Wood says he become well known among nuisance trappers because he paid them more for each gator than the small capture fee they received from the state. “I’m also popular with the snake trappers,” he said. They bring him anacondas, reticulated pythons and other species. “I’m the only snake buyer.” Today, All American Gator Products is a major gator purchaser. “We usually process about 1,000 per year,” Wood said. “We get about 400 a year from the annual statewide hunt.”

The company has two operations: the showroom and leather workshop in Hollywood and the processing plant in Arcadia. Wood is the company’s only full-time employee. He hires contractors for the skilled leather work and other tasks. Wood said he got tired of driving around South Florida selling his alligator meat to stores and restaurants, and found distributors who pick up the frozen meat at Arcadia and deliver it to customers. Popularized by TV shows like Swamp People, alligator meat today sells for about $8 a pound wholesale, and $12 to $16 a pound retail, he said. The company sends its hides to Sebring Custom Tanning in Sebring, before converting them into products in Hollywood.

Wood chose a singular business. “Alligators and African crocodiles are the most expensive leather in the world,” he said.

His company sells 80 percent of the hides it obtains each year to Hermès Paris, the maker of high-end luxury products, and turns the remainder into its own products, selling from the store and from its website. Aside from alligator leather, All American makes items from iguanas, snakes and sea rays. The company also sells hides to a luxury shoemaker in Miami.

But the hides All American sells to Hermès and the ones processed here fetch very different prices. “Hermès makes a purse out of our alligator hides and prices it at $40,000 or $50,000, and ours are about $3,000,” Wood said. “They can charge $1,200 for a belt, and ours start at $225. We have the same quality, but they have the brand.”

In fact, the handbags, belts, wallets and other items at the Hollywood store exhibit excellent workmanship — beautifully finished leather, fine sewing and detail work, high-quality zippers and linings. One leather jacket cost between $8,000 and $9,000 while a deep brown purse with leather handles was priced at less than $1,000.

Recently in the workshop filled with tools and machinery, Asnaldo Martín, a master leather worker originally from Cuba, was measuring hides, drawing designs and cutting strips of leather to make belts for men. Pointing to the brown purse he recently completed, he said, “This alone took 24 hours — three days of work. Very cheap compared to Hermès.”

All American charges customers for the amount of belly or hornback hide used for a product (there are three quality grades), plus hourly labor and any zippers, clamps and other materials required.

All American also has a skilled leather contractor in Naples.

“Our goal is to keep more hides here and process them,” Wood said. “That way, we can make alligator leather available to a larger share of the population.”

Last year, All American’s sales for leather goods, hides and meat totaled about $500,000, and Wood expects that to reach around $600,000 this year.

To promote All American leather and alligator meat, Wood — who is also a cook — attends trade shows and provides demonstrations on how to prepare gator for the table.

“I recently had a booth at the Las Vegas MAGIC apparel show, and I skinned a gator at a Vegas chefs’ convention.” In 2012, he prepared a gator picadillo that was popular at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival.

All American gets customers from all over the country who find out about its leather and meat products through the website or by word of mouth, Wood said. The store in Hollywood doesn’t get a lot of walk-ins, but “It’s important, because people see our products online and like to look at them in a brick-and-mortar store,” he said.

One frequent customer, Dr. Burton F. Elrod, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Nashville, found out about All American when he came here to hunt alligators several years ago.

“I’ve always loved alligator leather,” said Elrod, who is also the team physician for the Tennessee Titans football team. “I was riding in a car with a friend after getting an alligator or two, when he pulled out an alligator wallet.”

Elrod asked where it came from and found out about Wood.

“I wanted to make something out of the skins and they sent my skins to [All American Gator Products]. They made a couple of wallets and belts and clutch purses for me. They were great. I gave them to my wife and family and they really liked them. And that’s how we got started,” Elrod said.

“He also makes great boots. I’m wearing a pair of black boots now that they made for me.”

Since then Elrod has continued to visit South Florida to hunt alligators and continues to buy a variety of gator products for himself, his family and friends.

“I use them as gifts. Some friends are hunters so I had customized alligator gun straps made for them. And country musicians here saw them and asked for guitar straps, so we making straps for them,” Elrod said.

“Everyone always recommends Brian.”

Some animal rights groups, however, are opposed to alligator hunting and the use of hides for making leather products.

The Fort Lauderdale-based Animal Rights Foundation of Florida is opposed to animal cruelty, and they consider this to include the use of animals in medical research, businesses that transport primates for research, the raising of cattle and chickens for food (beef, chicken, milk, eggs) and hunting.

“Hunts are cruel and barbaric,” said Don Anthony, ARFF’s communications director. “There is no such thing as responsible alligator control. They don’t need our assistance to manage their numbers … they’ve been doing that for millions of years,” he said.

“With all the fakes that look so good, there’s no reason for people to dress like the Flintstones,” Anthony said.

The annual alligator hunts, overseen by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “are conducted to allow the public access to a renewable natural resource, and alligators are a renewable resource,” said Steve Stiegler, a biologist in the FWC’s alligator management program. “It is a recreational activity and hunters are allowed to sell the alligator carcasses that they take, thus permitting businesses like All American Gator Products to exist and thrive. Population control is an important element, it’s a side effect that provides some proactive measures to limit the nuisance potential of the alligator population.”

In last year’s hunt, which provided an important share of All American’s hides, 7,279 gators were harvested, with 95 percent of the hunt counted, according to the FWC.

Wood said that his business has not been a target of animal rights groups, suggesting there seems to be an advantage in working with dangerous reptiles: “We don’t get a lot of reaction from animal activists.

“Alligators aren’t fuzzy little creatures.”

The writer can be reached at josephmannjr@gmail.com.

All American Gator Products Inc.

Business: Buys, hunts and processes alligators to obtain hides and meat. The company sells most of its alligator hides to Hermès Paris, the luxury product maker, and converts the rest into a variety of leather products, including handbags, wallets, belts, jackets and other accessories. It also makes products from snake and lizard skins, and packs, freezes and sells alligator meat to distributors and restaurants.

Headquarters: 1860 Polk St., Hollywood.

Founder and owner: Brian Wood.

Founded: 1989.

Operations: Hollywood — showroom and workshop (Exotic Leather Fashion); Arcadia — processing plant where alligators are skinned and meat is packed and frozen.

Employees: One full-time (Brian Wood) and several contract employees.

Revenues: Sales of meat, hides and leather products reached about $500,000 in 2014.

Website: www.allamericangator.com.

Source: All American Gator Products

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