Clash of the Quackers

The Bay Quackers tours were a big duck in a small pond until a bigger flock showed up.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, 14 tourists with plastic duckbilled noisemakers roped around their necks boarded the Peking Duck, a maroon amphibious truck once manned by WWII soldiers. Captain Ingemar Olsson was at the helm, narrating the 80-minute land and sea tour, which included a truly obnoxious amount of quacking.

On the captain's orders — ready, steady, quack! — the tourists were instructed to "quack people out of their shoes." They quacked past Fisherman's Wharf, around Ghirardelli Square, and through North Beach. In Chinatown, one guy who was part of a rowdy eight-man bachelor party at the back quacked on "steady." "Premature equackulation!" cried another guy from the party, which had been downing miniature bottles of Jack Daniel's.

The tour members quacked at downtown shopping pedestrians and bicyclists and a homeless man pushing a cart. When two attractive women ran into the street to snap a picture with the Duck, the bachelor party members quacked louder than ever and urged the women to join them. They didn't.

Jake Poehls
This summer, another duck tour — Ride the Ducks — migrated to the city.
Jake Poehls
This summer, another duck tour — Ride the Ducks — migrated to the city.
Though many said it couldn’t be done, John Scannell started San Francisco’s first duck tour four years ago.
Jake Poehls
Though many said it couldn’t be done, John Scannell started San Francisco’s first duck tour four years ago.
Ride the Ducks has threatened to sue Bay Quackers for trademark infringement over the use of the quacking noise during its tours.
Jake Poehls
Ride the Ducks has threatened to sue Bay Quackers for trademark infringement over the use of the quacking noise during its tours.
Captain Ingemar Olsson gives quacking orders.
Captain Ingemar Olsson gives quacking orders.

The tour quacked across Fourth Street, past the baseball stadium, down an algae-coated ramp. Captain Olsson shifted into neutral and engaged the propeller as the Duck slid into San Francisco Bay. The quacking didn't stop there. Pelicans got a quack. Kayakers, another quack. The Willie McCovey statue: quack, quack.

It seemed a quack was more appropriate than ever when, heading back ashore, the Peking Duck encountered one of its own, head on. Yep, another duck tour. This was a glistening white duck. But, strangely, Captain Olsson didn't give the order. In fact, he seemed to be steering his duck away from the other one, and though he had been very thorough in narrating the journey thus far, he remained silent about that other duck. The white duck, armed with its own quackers, didn't acknowledge the Peking, either.

It turned out that this was no accident. These ducks come from different flocks that have been feuding all summer.

The maroon duck belongs to the Bay Quackers, a small, locally owned tour company that has operated in San Francisco for four years. The white duck belongs to Ride the Ducks International, a tour company owned by Bible-kissing, Georgia-based corporate monolith Herschend Family Entertainment.

In July, Ride the Ducks migrated into the territory of Bay Quackers; the result involved lies, betrayal, trash talk, suspicions of corporate espionage, a private investigator, and a couple of cease-and-desist orders.

For Bay Quackers owner John Scannell, the arrival of Ride the Ducks — a direct competitor — was really bad news. But it was no surprise. The opportunity to make a quick buck in this duck-eat-duck world hasn't gone unnoticed, as San Francisco has been ranked the number one city to visit in America by readers of Conde Nast Traveler for 16 straight years. Last year, an estimated 16.1 million travelers surrendered $8.2 billion to the San Francisco tourism industry. But this summer, after a new wave of tour operators rushed in, hungry for European visitors and their mighty euros, the national economy imploded.

Scannell feared he might lose his prized business, to which he had dedicated almost five years of his life. So when one of the Bay Quackers' beloved duck captains purportedly shredded his noncompete agreement and went to work for Ride the Ducks, Scannell found himself drifting toward a place he woefully refers to as "the dark side."

He's not sure how much longer he can afford it, but for now, John Scannell has a second-story office in Anchorage Square, a block off the main tourist drag and across from the historic Cannery building at Fisherman's Wharf. It appears to have been commandeered by ducks. Perched on the front cubicle wall are a Statue of Liberty ducky, a Santa Claus ducky, an angel ducky, and a blue-billed ducky in sunglasses. Origami ducks bask on a nearby shelf.

Apparently when a guy decides to start a duck business, everybody gets the idea that he's yearning to accumulate as many duck-inspired items as possible. As gifts, Scannell has received duck-feet slippers. A duck shower curtain. Duck boxers. "I'm not fond of duck things myself," he says. "But it's cool when people think about you."

Scannell is a 43-year-old Boston native who served in the Air Force, raced on an Americas Cup boat, and managed a chain of taco restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. He's tall, with dark hair and a chipped right front tooth that contributes to his youthful, almost cartoonish presence. But he takes his business very seriously, and is a frequent traveler to Asia, where he's forged many business connections. Scannell's habits include cracking his knuckles and bingeing on caffeine. "I like a slice of coffee in the morning," he says.

Bay Quackers isn't Scannell's first duck gig. In Seattle, he helped start a duck tour that eventually got bought by Ride the Ducks. He quit after a personality conflict with his partner, for which he takes responsibility. "I was a little brash in my youth," he admits.

Many had said a duck tour would never work in this city, since the Port of San Francisco is notoriously averse to change and unfriendly to outsiders. More importantly, prospects for getting Coast Guard approval for a duck in San Francisco Bay seemed dim.

The Coast Guard had to be sure that a restored 1945 WWII amphibious duck boat (DUKW) could safely transport passengers in a bay with complicated wind patterns, tides, and currents. That was unprecedented, so it seemed like a long shot. But then Scannell's silent partner, Lead Wey, did some research and learned about a tour duck in Hawaii operating under similar conditions. He figured if they could do it there, he and Scannell could do it here. So for more than a year, the men worked to restore a DUKW, make it lighter, and meet safety requirements, until they finally got Coast Guard approval. The Bay Quackers also had to procure a company office with a tour office downstairs, as well as access to the public ramp to help the ducks splash in.

The men hoped to integrate their ducks into the fabric of the community, so they named their first duck, which toured the Mission, El Pato. Next came Chinatown's Peking Duck. Scannell has dreams of launching a Psychedeliduck in, you guessed it, Haight-Ashbury, and a Diva Duck in the Castro, but those dreams of tourism success are now on hold, given the Bay Quackers' competitive struggle to keep afloat.

There are a couple of other barriers to expansion. Getting vehicles approved takes time, and hiring good captains is extremely difficult. Duck drivers must have a captain's license, a bus license, and approval from the Coast Guard, which is apparently a lengthy process. An entertaining personality is also vital, as Scannell likes his guides to be comedic and political, along the lines of Jon Stewart. In San Francisco, jokes about the Republican administration are a given. For example, when traveling through Bushman territory in Fisherman's Wharf, Bay Quackers captains quip: "Here we have a guy who hides behind a bush and scares people. In other places, they call that the vice president."

In late January, Scannell received a job application from George Adams, who had four years of experience as a duck captain and plenty of natural charm. There was one worry, though: Adams had already worked for Ride the Ducks in Philadelphia. Scannell knew that his expansionist rival had been scoping out San Francisco as a potential new market, and felt vaguely uneasy about hiring one of its former employees. What if Adams were a spy? Scannell says he was reassured, though, because Adams said he was gay and that he left Ride the Ducks because he didn't like working for a company that wasn't gay-friendly. But now, with allegations of corporate espionage and trademark infringement blowing around like so many feathers in a storm, the truth on that matter has become elusive.

Herschend Family Entertainment owns duck tours, aquariums, and theme parks nationwide, the most famous being Tennessee's Dollywood (also owned by Dolly Parton). It has been in business since 1950, and though the multimillion-dollar outfit is seemingly a law-abiding one, it's a competitive force that's willing to throw its weight around.

The best example of that is in Philadelphia, where earlier this year Ride the Ducks split into four different companies in a grab for sidewalk space in front of the Liberty Bell. The rule was that one company would be allotted one stretch of pavement. The move triggered the Philadelphia Inquirer headline "When Ducks Act Like Hogs: Tour Bus Quackery," but the company still occupies all four spots.

In 2005 in Philadelphia, Ride the Ducks attempted to sue its smaller competitor Super Ducks in federal court over trademark infringement of the "Wacky Quacker," its duckbilled noisemaker. The judge found in favor of Super Ducks, citing that the Wacky Quacker was not distinctive enough to qualify for trademark protection.

Despite the ruling, Scannell received a cease-and-desist letter in February informing him that Ride the Ducks had trademarked the quacking noise. He ignored the warning. In May, yet another accusatory letter arrived; Scannell hired a copyright lawyer, but kept his tours quacking. Ride the Ducks plans to move forward with a suit against the Bay Quackers, according to sales and marketing manager Bob Salmon, who says this suit is different because it's over the quack sound and not the Wacky Quacker itself.

Ride the Ducks has been considering an expansion to San Francisco's visitor-swollen market since 2003, Salmon says. It was waiting to secure a visible, tourist-friendly loading site, which it achieved in partnering with Cable Car Charters, a company already located on the prime corner of Jefferson and Taylor streets across from Pier 39. Ride the Ducks splashed in on the July 4 weekend with slightly lower prices ($32 for an out-of-town adult, compared to $35 at Bay Quackers) and more ducks (four, as opposed to Bay Quackers' two).

Scannell was a mess. "For the first month, I didn't even want to look at their Web site," he said. "I didn't want to see their ducks. I was kind of in denial." Like any small-business owner, he now thought his very existence was under attack.

But Scannell had known what was coming; he had already lunched and had drinks with Ride the Ducks president Chris Herschend. Though Herschend declined to be interviewed for this story, Scannell says he clearly remembers their meetings. The men talked baseball and business, and although Herschend struck Scannell as "somebody I could have a beer with," eventually Scannell made a threat.

"You can do one of two things," he says he told Herschend. "If you're going to clobber us, buy us out. We'll give you the keys to the city and make sure everything is okay. Or we will make sure you will never operate in the city again."

At the time, Scannell figured Ride the Ducks, with its Southern values and links to the Christian right, would be duck sauce in a city like San Francisco. He imagined protests in the street, bad press, and Ride the Ducks fleeing with its tailfeathers between its legs.

According to Scannell, Herschend asked how much he wanted for Bay Quackers. "We gave him a price in the millions," Scannell says. "He gave us a price in the hundred-thousand-dollar range. That's less than what we used to restore one duck." He refused the offer, and says he'll never forget Herschend's last words: "I'll see you on the field." Herschend meant the streets of Fisherman's Wharf, where the two companies would be competing for business with more than 25 other city tours.

Visitors walking down Jefferson Street are ambushed by tour opportunities. Party boat operators announce daily trips around the bay. Double-decker buses and hop-on-hop-off tours seem to rumble past as often as stoplights change. Walking tours, Segway tours, cable car tours, Alcatraz cruises, wine country tours, fire engine tours, and tours in 1930s cars that now run on propane all line the streets, as do salespeople handing out glossy pamphlets. It seems there are two of every kind of tour these days, and sometimes four or five.

For the manager of City Sightseeing — one of several red double-decker bus tours in San Francisco — the competition is so fierce, the industry so steeped in subterfuge, that he refused to discuss the duck situation with a reporter over the phone. "How do I know that you are who you say you are?" he asked in all seriousness.

In many cases, though, the tour entrepreneurs treat each other with respect and sometimes forge friendships. But that certainly didn't happen with the competing duck tours.

When Scannell noticed that the Ride the Ducks vehicles didn't have the appropriate license stickers, he reported them to the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates passenger transportation companies. It turned out that for about the first three months Ride the Ducks was operating, its vehicles were unlicensed. But Ride the Ducks and PUC worked out the kink, which marketing and sales manager Salmon said was a mistake due to confusion over the company name.

Scannell is also quick to point out that there's been confusion around town about the existence of two duck tours. He says he's gotten angry calls about recklessly driven ducks. He now knows to ask what color, he says, and the answer always seems to be "white."

Ride the Ducks seems less interested in that kind of direct trash talk. "We've gotten noise from the Bay Quackers in terms of the things they feel like they needed to report us on, or whatever," Salmon said. "Our focus is trying to make a good product for the guest, and that's it. ... The last thing I'm concerned about is the Bay Quackers."

The relationship might not have been so contentious if it weren't for what Scannell considers Ride the Ducks' worst offense. One hot day in late June, office manager Lyseen Jiang remembers Captain George Adams coming upstairs to the main office, where she was working at her desk. He asked to see his file to ensure his CPR certification was current. Jiang recalls hearing the sound of crinkling paper, then in her peripheral vision she noticed Adams folding something into his pocket. He then asked her a strange question about the whereabouts of a co-worker. "He was trying to make me not think about the sound that I heard," she said. "It was tricky."

Adams then allegedly headed downstairs to the Bay Quackers tour office and went behind the ticket counter. According to Scannell, a ticket saleswoman returned from a break to find him there and heard the paper shredder start up. Scannell says he fished out the scraps and laboriously taped them back together. When he holds up the finished product, there's no mistaking its identity: Adams' noncompete agreement.

The agreement was meant to protect the Bay Quackers' business and trade secrets — in particular, how the company restored its vehicles for use in the bay. To this day, Adams denies shredding the agreement and says he never signed one, though the signature matches his signature on other documents.

About a week after the alleged shredding, Adams left Bay Quackers for Ride the Ducks.

He now says he was never treated differently in Philadelphia, and that he believes the company, though steeped in Christian values, has nothing against gay people. Adams took with him all he had learned about San Francisco, along with intimate knowledge of the tour route and Bay Quackers' operations. Of course, Ride the Ducks didn't need a Quackers insider to learn about the tour. Its corporate bigwigs had ridden Scannell's ducks and every other tour in town to become familiar with the marketplace. But hiring a fully trained local employee certainly didn't hurt. Scannell sent Adams a cease-and-desist order, which he ignored.

Smarting, the Bay Quackers became dead set on finding out whether George Adams had been a spy. For weeks, Scannell and Wey spent long hours online trying to figure out who Adams really was, and whether there was anything illegal or scandalous about Herschend's arrival in San Francisco.

Scannell recalls searching for connections between Herschend and the American Family Association, a conservative Christian nonprofit that battles what it calls the "homosexual agenda." He also tried to find links to Herschend and other evangelical groups that might have donated to the statewide Yes on 8 anti-gay-marriage campaign. He soon learned that co-owner Jack Herschend sits on the boards of several Christian ministries, including the National Institute of Marriage, a Christian marriage counseling nonprofit that interprets the Old and New Testaments literally. Although the Herschend family has a well-documented history of donating to Republican campaigns, Scannell and Wey found no links between Herschend and San Francisco's hot-button issue — gay marriage.

Wey, a numbers man with an MBA from MIT's Sloan School of Management, focused on Adams' background. Performing a background check, he discovered that the Social Security number Adams had given Bay Quackers apparently belonged to someone named Depetro Veronica, who had four other aliases. Wey also found out that during the time Adams and his partner, Robert Zamberlan (who now works for Ride the Ducks), relocated from Philadelphia to San Diego, Ride the Ducks had been looking to set up shop there. Wey wondered whether Adams had been helping Ride the Ducks in San Diego. Maybe when that didn't work out, Wey surmised, Adams came to San Francisco to scout out the area and the competition.

If Scannell and Wey had asked Adams about all this, they might not have liked the answers. Adams insists he gave Bay Quackers his true Social Security number, and although he had been hopeful Ride the Ducks might start up in San Diego, he never worked for the company there.

Wey and Scannell still suspected foul play. They hired a private investigator, and not just any private investigator. Richard Smith, a former FBI special agent, had worked for 20 years in Soviet counterintelligence, investigating domestic and international espionage. Smith wouldn't reveal his methods, but he said that in the duck case, investigators found nothing incriminating about Ride the Ducks or Adams. "There wasn't any definitive concrete conclusion," he said. "The entity that owns Ride the Ducks had some Christian right connections, but nothing about that that led us to think it was inappropriate."

As it turned out, Wey had made a mistake when entering Adams' Social Security number. And there was no evidence to link Adams — who had worked in San Diego for Hornblower, another cruise company — to Ride the Ducks there.

That said, cracking a business espionage case is tough, according to Smith. Companies are often too smart to leave paper trails of employed spies, so evidence is hard to come by. Usually the only way to smoke it out, he said, is to perform a double-agent operation, where an agent befriends the alleged spy, gains his trust, and gets him to spill.

Smith said his team was instructed not to approach Adams. So if somebody really wanted answers, that somebody might want to consider riding Adams' duck.

SF Weekly booked passage for 11 a.m. on a recent Friday, having taken the Bay Quackers tour the previous Saturday. Even before the tour started, Captain Adams demonstrated that he was a true professional.

About thirty minutes before departure, he stood near the big white duck, chatting up passersby and inviting them on the tour. With his animated brown eyes, affable smile, and teddy-bear build, Adams was a hit with kids. Once the duck was loaded up (the dreary day produced only six passengers), he made small talk with the guests and then bounced into his captain's chair.

Adams' descriptions of historical monuments and sites were in many cases similar or identical to those on the Bay Quackers tour, and the tour followed nearly the same route. But Adams' delivery was punchier, and in between talking points, he played duck-inspired music and songs that were thematically matched to the tour. For example, after passing the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, a gift from the widow of sugar tycoon Adolph B. Spreckels (considered the original "sugar daddy"), the tour was treated to the Archies' "Sugar Sugar." Two young boys from Wales bobbed their heads contentedly to the song, and Adams — who seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself — tapped his foot.

Beyond Adams' clear superiority as a tour captain, Ride the Ducks had other advantages. New white paint glistened on the duck, where the Bay Quackers' paint was chipping. Ride the Ducks' seats were plush and comfy, while Bay Quackers' seats were stiff and ripped in some places. There were also more seats on the bigger Ride the Ducks vehicles, as the company has built its DUKWs rather than renovating old ones.

Adams is well aware of all this, and said during an interview that he prefers working for a big company that take cares of the details and employs him full-time. "I go where the money is best," he said with a shrug.

Beyond that, he said he didn't have a good rapport with Scannell. It bothered him that the boss went on frequent business trips and seemed more concerned with making connections abroad than running things at home.

When Adams was told that Scannell had hired a private investigator, his right eyebrow shot up. "About me?" he asked in disbelief. "John's kind of odd. I don't know if he's been watching too many spy movies." He said he understood why it looked suspicious that he had already worked for Ride the Ducks, but was surprised that Scannell would actually believe he was a spy. "He knew me," Adams said. "I'm just not that good."

If anything, Adams said, he had tried to pass on some tips about luring customers to Bay Quackers he had picked up at Ride the Ducks, but Scannell never seemed interested. "I don't think he wants a big business," Adams said. (Scannell says that's all ridiculous.)

Back aboard Adams' duck in San Francisco Bay, a question loomed of whether we'd pass a Bay Quackers duck. It certainly would have been interesting to see how Adams would react, if at all, but the opportunity never came. On that Friday, Ride the Ducks was the only game in the water; it felt like a glimpse of the future.

Scannell hasn't lost all hope yet, but his financial situation is looking pretty bleak. In his office, he offered his balance sheets for SF Weekly's inspection. Last October, his net income was about $8,000. This October, he says, Bay Quackers profited $91.82. The problem lay in ticket sales, which were down as much as 40 percent. He blamed the overall economy.

But the real money in this industry, Scannell explains, is when you can build your business to about seven ducks. That's when the economies of scale begin working for you. He knows Ride the Ducks has numerous vehicles at the ready; Salmon confirmed that the company has plans to turn San Francisco into a 15-duck city. That's a lot of quacking.

Scannell had hoped to eventually run about 10 ducks, and to be running five or six ducks in San Francisco at this point. Instead, he is running one and a half. He's also had to make some unprecedented changes this winter. He laid off Jiang, his office manager of two years. He also had to temporarily say goodbye to his third captain, so until June it'll just be Olsson and Scannell guiding the tours. Bay Quackers would have lost its office if not for a renegotiation of the rent. "Thank God the property managers are really nice to us here," Scannell said.

There is one thing Scannell is looking forward to for the winter, and that's a Holiday Lights tour aboard the ducks. He believes it'll be a hit with the locals, and apparently he isn't the only one. SF Weekly recently received a press release from Ride the Ducks: "Classic Cable Car Sightseeing is lighting up the holidays with a special holiday lights tour of San Francisco."

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
San Francisco Concert Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.