Jeff Swartz Interview
Hitch-Hiker Manufacturing has been an industry leader in custom built concession
trailers for over 30 years now.
Hitch-Hiker Manufacturing is dedicated to the exclusive production of such
trailers for the Fair and Amusement Industry.
They are a full-service custom manufacturer for an individual’s mobile
equipment needs from conception to completion.
Hitch-Hiker’s President Jeff Swartz spoke with us about his unique
Q – Jeff, you were the Founder of Hitch-Hiker
A – I’m actually Second-Generation. My father started it back
in ’69 and has evolved it to a certain level that I’ve been able
to take over. I’ve actually controlled it for the past, I think 8 years
Q – Before 1969, how many companies were involved
in making these customized food trailers?
A – Very few. Prior to ’69 people were still converting living
trailers or RV type trailers or cargo trailers; you know cutting holes in the
sides, and putting in some kind of a fan system, and kind of making a make-shift
type of food vending trailer that really wasn’t up to doing the job as
far as today’s standards anyway.
Q – These trailers are really works of art.
A – They are. They’re getting to be.
Q – Who’s designing the colors and the logos
that appear on the trailers?
A – One of our strong points and throughout the industry is our graphic
team and our graphic development program. We work hand in hand with the customers
to review their menu items and their food items. Then, we take their likes
and dis-likes into consideration. Actually, many times we’ll work through
several revisions of a mock-up rendering of what the trailers gonna look like
to present to them before we actually do the graphics on the trailer. The computer
age is really bringing us into the next era of high-end graphics of trailers.
Q – Are you able to up-grade these trailers or
do you have to buy a totally new trailer in order to keep-up with the technology?
A – I’ve refurbished trailers that are getting to be 25 years
old. It’s amazing how many of those units are still out there and operational
and come in for a face-lift, new awnings, new awning sign panels, new marquees,
which is the roof sign that’s attached to the roof and covers up all
the equipment. The trailers are going back maybe 15 years which is like a body-style
change that we did. We went from a wood-framed unit to an aluminum frame unit.
Those are actually easier to up-date, ‘cause they’re all painted
aluminum bodies. With that, we can strip the entire graphic or stripe or whatever’s
on ‘em and put brand new paint or primer on it and start with a fresh
surface and then do a body wrap that we’re putting on today’s brand
new trailers. So, a 15 year old trailer can leave here that looks like its
Q – What kind of people are purchasing these trailers?
Are they people looking to get into the business or have they been in the
business for awhile?
A – We deal with all sorts of customers with different backgrounds.
Of course, we’ve got a client base with people that have 15 trailers.
Of course they didn’t come in one time and order all of them. Some of
these are going back to be 25 years old. Just as I’m Second-Generation
in the manufacturing business, the fair industry itself is built on generations
upon generations upon generations. Those type of people are the secure market,
well, not really the secure market, but the basis of our clientele. But, then
we still deal with a lot of independents where they just operate one, maybe
two trailers. They go a 30 miler. That’s another term in this industry
for people who only, go 30 miles away from home. They’re back at home
every night. Then we have other customers that don’t even own a home.
They live on the road just year ‘round, traveling the circuit.
Q – You can probably find your trailers at the
New York State Fair in Syracuse.
A – Oh, absolutely. I’m sure we’ve probably got a good
percentage of trailers in Syracuse, New York.
Q – What was your father’s background?
A – My father’s background was the RV industry. He was very mechanically
inclined and I like to feel that I’ve followed that same footstep. It’s
just internally wired into my system on how stuff goes together. But, he started
with the RV’s. He was a manager for Alby Homes. That was a co. that built
a lot of modular type home units, and then branched off into RV’s and
campers. I’m too young to remember the fuel crunch and that put a major
damper on not just automotives, but the way people looked at RV’s. Is
it a hobby or is it get-a-way? So, things were slowed down there. But, at that
same time and I’m talking probably 30 years ago, a couple of local people
who were in the carnival business, they approached him as someone who had a
small building that was building campers, truck caps, occasionally the small
trailers, and said – hey, you can put this trailer together. This is
what we want to build for selling French Fries. He kind of got into that way.
Really small baby steps, and it just progressed. A little bit at a time.
Q – He’s now retired from the company?
A – He is retired from the co. After I came through school; I was working
here full-time 40 hours a week before I started high school. So, I had the
opportunity to do that ‘cause he wouldn’t give me an allowance.
He said you don’t get an allowance. You have an opportunity to have a
job – and earn it!! So, I was down here just learning odds and ends jobs,
literally before I started high school. So, through high school I was always
around the business and didn’t go immediately into college once I did
come out of high school. I was here for about 2 or 3 years to kind of get a
feeling for exactly what did I want to do. I actually went to school in Pittsburgh.
I went for Mechanical Engineering and went back for another Bachelor in Architecture.
When I came out with those two degrees, I came out with a 4.0 GPA (Grade Point
Average) and I had an open door to Boeing. I actually decided to choose this
route, in my father’s footsteps and see where I could take it.
Q – How do you go about marketing these trailers
A – There’s a few publications that are geared really towards
the fair and carnival industry. There are a handful of trade shows that we
do attend. One of the biggest is in Florida. It’s all of our competitors
and people that build Ferris wheels, the carnival rides not necessarily the
amusement park rides, the mobile ride industry are all there exhibiting. There’s
an international amusement park show called IAPPA that’s kind of hit
or miss whether we attend it or not. We have gotten some good response from
it, but that type of atmosphere is really out of our niche market. I don’t
like going to trade shows where there’s thousands upon thousands of people.
Q – How many people work for you?
A – We run a nice manageable crew of anywhere from 12 – 18 currently.
We used to build a lot more trailers in the mid 80’s. There weren’t
nearly as customizable and detailed. It was more like an assembly line deal,
whereas he (Jeff’s father) was running upwards of 25 – 30 people.
I guess in the big business world we’re a small co.
Q – What’s the strangest request you’ve
had for a custom trailer?
A – Deep – fried twinkies. Deep – fried oreos. (Laughs).
Different areas have stronger food items. For instance, one person would love
elephant ears. In a different area of the country they don’t have a clue
what an elephant ear is.
Q – What is an elephant ear?
A – Fried dough. So, fried dough and elephant ears are one in the same,
but, they’re just called differently in different areas. Funnel cakes
is common. Of course the pizza and the popcorn, hotdogs and all that stuff,
lemonade. At our level, the trailers we build, I don’t get too many out
of the ordinary food requests. Usually somebody that has something that unique
they’re doing it as a side item of what they’re already in there
Q – Every trailer that someone orders from you
has to be customized?
A – Everything is customized. As a matter of fact I have 3 or 4 quotes
out right now that I’ve been working on this week. They’re very
time-consuming. They could all be pizza trailers. They’re not, but, there’s
so many different ways of doing pizza. Is it par-bake? Is it fresh dough? Do
they need mixers? Do they need freezers? What type of oven (do they need)?
Convection oven? Conveyer oven? Deck oven? The options to put together a trailer,
is the same route as someone putting together a restaurant. People have preferences
on brand of equipment: a Hobart mixer versus a Univex mixer. So, we’ve
got to really be adaptable to and resourceful to obtaining the equipment they’re
looking for. If someone’s looking for a French Fry trailer and they’re
used to this specific brand of fryer and it’s not one I typically deal
with, I don’t want that customer to have to switch their brands of equipment
they know how to service, repair and get service for. It’s easier for
us to do that one time, to research it, and get what they’re accustomed
Q – When ordering a trailer, do people call and say, “What
will $100,000 get me? Or do they already know price?
A – I wish it was that simple. (Laughs). It’s a very tough market
and $100,000 mark, is a very real number nowadays. Five years ago, the trailers
typically ran from $70,000 - $80,000, possibly $90,000. Three years ago it
was typical to see $100,000 plus. Today, I’m quoting anywhere typically
between $90,000 to $190,000. When it comes to equipment, prices have really
been jumping lately, with the cost of stainless steel. One of my biggest increases
this past year was plastic. It probably went up 30 percent. And, we use a lot
our plastic in all of our signage. What a lot of people who are outside the
business don’t realize is; I’ll get a lot of people calling about
a trailer, that aren’t familiar with what’s involved in the business
itself. They’ll say we went to put together a French Fry trailer. We
kind of figure there’s some good profit margins in French Fries. I really
try to be up-front with them. The first thing I ask them is, ‘Are you
currently in business? No. o.k, so do you have places to book a French Fry
trailer? No. I’ll advise them to get with National Independent Concessions
Association, and to research what’s involved with trying to locate a
French Fry trailer, because I think any existing Fair they’re already
got French Fry trailers overbooked. Those people have contracts that go back
generations. They’re holding French Fry, so somebody new can’t
just come in and put a French Fry trailer right beside ‘em.
Q – I can’t imagine anyone getting into that business with the
idea of making a lot of money. It’s a lot of hours.
A – Oh, yeah.
Q – And the money you’re making varies from
day to day.
A – There’s big risks and there’s big rewards. It is an
Q – Let’s say someone calls you for a trailer
and everything goes great. How long then before the trailer is ready?
A – Typically about 10-12 weeks. We build everything from raw steel,
tubular and angular steel to fabricate the frame. We have 3 different axle
options. There’s pros and cons with every one of ‘em. We fabricate
from that frame to all aluminum walls. We have C and C Break Equipment where
it beads the panels. We fabricate all the walls out of aluminum to where we
don’t have any rust and corrosion of that nature, so we’re literally
building trailers that will last 30-40 plus years. And actually, before we
even start welding any steel together I have been working sometimes on layouts
and working with customers for months. I’ve got some that have looked
at layouts that have come back a year later, and then pursue something we started
that long ago. Floor plans I’ll work on. Sometimes I’ll get lucky
and there will be just one or two or three revisions. Sometimes I hit a dozen
revisions on floor plans. Typically by the time we get that far I know the
customers likes and dislikes and we can put the artwork together.
Q – There must never be a slow season for you?
A – We’ve been going for the last 5 or 6 or more years – year ‘round.
Where the carnival business is seasonal business, where one carnival is out
of season, another customer or carnival out west is right in the middle of
their busiest season. So, with me being a manufacturer nation wide, I’m
really busy year ‘round. I could sell 100 trailers Feb 1 st, if I could
have them all out the door March 1 st. It just doesn’t work that way
Q – Hitch-Hiker Manufacturing is really not an
A – Its tough. We have a lot of areas that are standardized. My wall
construction is very similar from one trailer to the next. The awnings are
typical. Sizes might change, but the construction process is the same. Something
we did a few years back with construction was we had the State of Ohio come
in to inspect our electrical systems in a roughened condition and in a final
condition. They’re inspecting to Commercial National Code which means
a lot to our customers. That’s something this industry really isn’t
enforced upon because it is a small nice industry. We’re kind of heading
that off so that stuff can be done.
Q – How has the business changed just since you’ve
taken over Hitch-Hiker Manufacturing?
A – When I took over about 10 years ago, the things that I’ve
been able to excel with are the artwork, the design, areas of graphics, and
the marquees we put on the roofs. From when I was a little kid people said, ‘Flash
equals cash’. The more flash you can put on the trailer; you can draw
more people to it, and the more cash you bring in. We’ve taken levels
upon levels upon levels of steps forward to enhance bigger signs, better signs
and it seems like every year I’ll look back and say, we can’t outdo
ourselves now – and yet we do. Just bigger and better. The most recent
trade show we went to down in Florida we won the most impressive award out
of the trade show. So, that was against manufacturers of not only trailers
but rides and everything. So, that was pretty neat to come home with that.
So, we keep pushing.
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