Jeff Swartz Interview
(Hitch-Hiker Manufacturing)

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 business.

Q – Jeff, you were the Founder of Hitch-Hiker Manufacturing?
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 now.

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 brand new.

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 of yours?
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 with.

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 to using.

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 unstable business.

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 unfortunately.

Q – Hitch-Hiker Manufacturing is really not an assembly-line business.
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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