Randy Stenger makes his living getting adults to play in the dirt like kids - just with bigger toys.
On four hectares near Minneapolis in the US, Stenger created Extreme Sandbox, where customers pay hundreds of dollars to push dirt around with construction equipment - like bulldozers, excavators and wheel loaders. "It's a bucket-list experience," he says.
Stenger's business is part of a growing industry that aims to provide thrills by letting people try out machinery that would normally be available only to trained specialists. Elsewhere in Minnesota, for example, you can operate a battle tank, fly in a fighter jet simulator or drive a fire truck.
Stenger appeared earlier this year on Shark Tank in the US and won handshake investments from two investors. Since then, he says, business has quadrupled.
Every boy's dream
Pete Mascarenas visited earlier this month after his wife treated him to an early Father's Day present. He spent 90 minutes in the excavator, loading and unloading tons of dirt, maneuvering through an obstacle course, and whacking a basketball from the top of the pile. The climax: lowering the boom on a 1997 Saturn in a destruction zone car crush.
"This is every boy's dream when he becomes a big boy," Mascarenas says.
Andy Rumpho, who recently redeemed a Sandbox gift card from his daughter for his birthday, was relieved not to get a gift that would collect dust. "I have enough stuff," he says.
After spending 30 minutes in safety and training before his experience, he admitted to some butterflies. "It's the fear of the unknown," he says. "I'm concerned that I'll run this thing into the hole."
After the video, Rumpho and a buddy who came along to watch were given safety vests and headsets so that both could hear the instructions by the instructor, and Rumpho's friend could heckle him when he stabbed the controls.
He hopped into the climate-controlled excavator cab, which fits only one. The instructor pointed out the two joysticks that control the bucket, stick, boom and swing, as well as levers to move forward and back, and walked a safe distance away.
"Release the safety lock," said instructor Adam Johnson before he began the commands. "Now put your right hand on the right joystick and pull back slowly to raise the boom. Good. Put your left hand on the left joystick and move it left or right to spin around as fast as you want."
Johnson ran Rumpho through the paces of digging a hole, building a mound of it, taking the big load airborne and dumping it. After 15 minutes, Rumpho was left alone to excavate as he pleased. "I have the remote kill switch in my hand in case you go rogue," Johnson reminded him.
Rumpho loved the experience but said it has a learning curve. "I won't be applying for any construction jobs soon," he says.
Stenger said the idea for the business originated when one of his boys passed a construction site and said, "Dad, wouldn't it be fun to play on that stuff?"
With the potential $150,000 investment from Shark Tank in exchange for 20 per cent of his company, Stenger hopes to add a dozen locations in five to 10 years.
Each location serves about 20 to 50 individual customers a week and 10 to 15 corporate groups a month. Customers pay $US300 ($395) on average, although packages range from $200 to $1000.
"Definitely, it is a luxury," says Stenger. "It's like paying $300 to sky-dive or drive a race car. We want to be a premium service."
Not only for the boys
Stenger allows only adults to operate his equipment, but he's been surprised by his demographics. Nearly 40 per cent of his clients are women. "I thought I'd get mostly middle-aged guys, but we get a lot of companies doing team building, and families wanting something different," he says.
Diane Meier took her husband, brother, 19-year-old nephew and 89-year-old mother, Pearl, spending $900 on a family package. "It was a great family activity," Meier says. "We couldn't stop talking about it even a week later."
Getting into the excavator cab was a challenge for her mother. "It's made for strong, tall, young men," Pearl says.
Once she was in, manipulating the controls was easy. "I lifted a car," she says.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)