Randy Stenger makes his living getting adults to play in the dirt like kids — with bigger toys.
On 10 acres near Hastings, 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 said.
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. In Minnesota, you can operate a battle tank, fly in a fighter jet simulator or drive a firetruck.
Similar businesses are appearing around the country. "We know there's demand," said Ed Mumm, who founded the Dig This construction experience in Las Vegas and wants to franchise the concept in Texas, Los Angeles and Orlando.
Stenger appeared earlier this year on ABC-TV's "Shark Tank" and won handshake investments from two investors. Since then, he says, business has quadrupled, and Father's Day, when kids and their moms sometimes struggle to come up with something new for dads, is Sunday.
Pete Mascarenas of Hermantown, Minn., visited last week 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 said.
Andy Rumpho of Rochester, 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 said.
After spending 30 minutes in safety and training before his experience, he admitted to some butterflies. "It's the fear of the unknown," he said. "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 from 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."
"Uh-oh, I see you elected not to get vomit insurance. Cleanup is on you," Johnson joked. He 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."
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?"
But he isn't the first to build a heavy equipment playground for adults. Similar businesses exist in West Berlin, N.J.; Las Vegas, and Williams, Ariz. One in Bradenton, Fla., closed in 2013.
Stenger, 40, never worked in construction. A former consultant for Target Corp., he rents his big rigs from Komatsu America. He negotiated a favorable lease agreement in exchange for selling branded Komatsu toys and T-shirts in his gift shop and featuring the brand in training videos. The manufacturer wants more name recognition in the U.S.
The other giant sandbox firms evolved out of construction companies that own their equipment. Bennett Contracting in Bradenton started People at Play in 2009 as an income supplement during the recession when the construction biz was slow. "We did it on weekends for about three years," said Vice President Alisa Bennett. "But we ran the numbers and decided the money is in construction."
Stenger, who opened a second location in Pottsboro, Texas, in April, runs both it and the Hastings business all year long. He met with a franchising consultant last year but decided against it for now. "The franchising model is built on hundreds of units with relatively high opening costs," he said. "We can handle the $100,000 to $200,000 it costs to open one."
With the potential $150,000 investment from Shark Tank in exchange for 20 percent of his company, Stenger hopes to add a dozen locations in five to 10 years. But the investment from sharks Mark Cuban and Kevin O'Leary remains in due diligence. It's still a handshake deal and either side can walk away, Stenger said. Cuban advised him to get a third location open first.
Each location serves about 20 to 50 individual customers a week and 10 to 15 corporate groups a month. Customers pay $300 on average, although packages range from $200 to $1,000. "Definitely, it is a luxury," said Stenger. "It's like paying $300 to sky-dive or drive a race car. We want to be a premium service."
Last year, Extreme Sandbox brought $500,000 in revenue. With the second locations, he hopes for $1 million this year.
Bennett, who informally advised Stenger, thinks the marketing and branding already in place will make Extreme Sandbox successful. "Randy is doing a lot more than just heavy equipment. He's got the corporate events, remote control trucks and drones, heavy equipment camps and a firetruck," she said. "He's selling an experience that people will remember for the rest of their lives."
Stenger allows only adults to operate his equipment, but he's been surprised by his demographics. Nearly 40 percent 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 said.
Diane Meier of Wayzata 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 said. "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 said.
Once she was in, manipulating the controls was easy. "I lifted a car," she said.