Hand-Washing Stations Restore Business for New Middletown Manufacturer

NEW MIDDLETOWN – Jeff Swartz needed to tap into 32 years of experience to find a way to reinvent Hitch-Hiker Manufacturing and give it a boost to survive the coronavirus pandemic.

In the end, all he needed was 10 seconds, a piece of paper and something to write with. In that time, he sketched out his first idea of Quad-Sink, a four-sided hand-washing station.

Eventually, the new product line turned into a new subsidiary for the company. And on Monday, that new branch of the business, Personal Protected, celebrated its ribbon-cutting inside Hitch-Hiker.

“After being in business 52 years and starting off 2020, we never dreamed we’d be having a ribbon-cutting ceremony, celebrating a new direction and a new company,” Swartz said.

As the pandemic took hold in March, “On a daily basis, as we were losing orders on a work in progress,” he explained. “We were listening to [Gov. Mike DeWine]. We were seeing other companies transitioning to making face masks, face shields and other types of [personal protective equipment] as our company was sliding out of control. Beyond any of our control.”

Hitch-Hiker had several projects under construction, but calls quickly poured in to halt pending orders indefinitely. Jeff Swartz and his team quickly finished nearly-completed orders, but without fairs and large events, prospects were nonexistent.

The second-generation concession trailer company lost “a couple million dollars” because of COVID-19, Holly Swartz said.

But within a week of her husband sketching a design for the hand-washing station, he had a prototype. Then the rest of his family agreed to the Quad-Sink idea. Holly is co-owner and vice president of Personal Protected. Their daughter, Jessica, handles the designs and social media, and their son, Jared, is learning from his father.

Personal Protected makes hand-washing stations.

In the last few months, Personal Protected has manufactured and delivered more than 50 units. Among its first orders were 10 stations for Youngstown State and two for the Columbiana School District.

Early supporters of the company, including Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel, state and local officials, stopped in to celebrate the new business.

YSU was the first client for the Swartz family. The university’s 10 movable units are found in high-traffic areas around campus and moved as necessary.

Tressel said YSU might purchase more units once the number of people on campus returns to normal levels. He also said the school is considering placing them at athletic facilities.

In June, YSU President Jim Tressel and his wife, Ellen, showed off the university’s new hand-washing stations, the first order Personal Protected fulfilled.

“As flu season approaches, I hear from students all the time that they use them, but we want to turn it up a notch,” Tressel said. “People are going to get colds and sniffles and get pushed inside. It’s been a great thing for us.”

Shortly after YSU bought its first units, Springfield Local Schools superintendent Tom Yazvac stopped by the manufacturing plant. The district subsequently bought two units and is awaiting a third.

Several other Columbiana County school districts purchased multiple units.

“Hand-washing never goes out of style,” Yazvac said. “Pandemic or not, we have to keep hand washing, so we’ll be using these long after the pandemic leaves us.”

Springfield isn’t the only area school to invest in the Quad-Sinks.

The Mahoning County Board of Commissions spent $200,000 on units for every school system in the county, according to Commissioner David Ditzler. The funding was part of the county’s allocation from the federal coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress in the spring.

“We thought, maybe this would give [students] more incentive to go to school in person,” Ditzler said. “If we can provide one to them, then the school systems might say, ‘This is great. We’ll put one at the stadium for kids to wash, one inside the school, one in the cafeteria.’”

The Swartz family has 20 employees, and they’re looking to hire more. The company constructs custom-made trailers, so each project is a different. The Quad-Sinks, however, maintain a similar design, with the only difference being an 84-inch unit and an 81-inch model.

The reopening of fairs and events won’t mean a return to business for Hitch-Hiker Manufacturing. Jeff Swartz said.

Reverting solely to the trailer business isn’t in the plans, Jeff Swartz said. Customers would have to reopen, generate revenue and then feel comfortable about putting in orders for new trailers.

Plus there is a spike in COVID-19 cases across Ohio, which results from colder weather forcing people indoors, where the virus spreads more easily, noted state Sen. Michael Rulli, R-33, Salem, who attended the press event.

“When you come to a ribbon cutting like this, where you can see a company use American ingenuity and pivot into something to help us fight the pandemic, it’s a wonderful thing,” Rulli observed.

Pictured: At the ribbon cutting for Personal Protected are Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel, Ellen Tressel, Mahoning County Commissioners Anthony Traficanti and David Ditzler, Personal Protected’s Holly Swartz, Jeff Swartz, Jessica Swartz and Jared Swartz, state Sen. Michael Rulli and Mahoning County Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.