Patrick Konopelski discovered his entrepreneurial spirit in high school, when he offered to cater his sister’s wedding. The event was such a hit that he found himself a year later running a catering company from his dorm room at Kutztown University. Upon graduating in 1985, Konopelski dedicated himself full-time to his business. Today, he owns Konopelski Katering, several food trucks, a vending machine company and the 27-acre Halloween attraction Shocktoberfest. We asked him what it takes to run his seasonal businesses and how he started Truck N Brew, an outdoor eatery and live music destination, during the pandemic.
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This interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
What does it take financially to run a seasonal business?
As a seasonal company, we make our money in the second half of the year. January through April brings in very little income because of the weather patterns in Pennsylvania. And we have expenses during those months. Just like squirrels, you have to do a really good job of storing your nuts to make sure there is enough money to get you through the winter.
If you have the funds for it, you can use it. If you don’t, you shouldn't use it. If you keep borrowing, you're not going to be able to stay in business. You can't borrow your way to prosperity. If you have a couple of years that you are not successful and you can't pay back your loans, the bank will take everything and you've wasted your time.
What was the hardest part about starting Shocktoberfest?
The biggest challenges when starting Shocktoberfest was trying to figure out what it was and what people wanted it to be. We also had no idea how many people wanted to experience this sort of entertainment. There was a lot of unknown and learning every year. There was no rule book and no Google. We created the industry.
What was the most rewarding part of starting Shocktoberfest?
The most rewarding part of having Shocktoberfest is seeing all of the people coming out and enjoying what we worked on all year long. Seeing all the smiling faces and screaming faces. You see couples, you see groups, you see families. It’s just a blast watching everyone enjoy themselves. It’s that instant gratification that makes it all worthwhile.
What frightens you?
An overzealous weatherman. In outdoor entertainment your event is made or broken by the weather or the expectation of the weather. If there’s going to be a torrential downpour — everyone knows it. But sometimes people can overplay a bit of rain. The weather and weathermen scare me the most because that means we're not able to do what we want to do.
How has the pandemic affected your businesses?
The governor shut down the state in March and I closed my business for all intents and purposes. We were able to keep the vending machine operation going because it is essential to feed the workers. People began canceling events and we started writing very large checks to our customers to give them their deposits back. I didn’t want to keep anyone’s money because I didn’t know if they were going to need or want our services. That was tough.
You also created Truck N Brew during this time. How did you start a business during a pandemic?
I own several food trucks and a massive 7,000 square-foot tent. I said, let's come up with a new business and it'll be an outdoor experience because that’s OK with COVID-19. It needed to be food, alcohol and music — because we need that during this time. People really responded to it and it allowed us to bring back our employees and start making food again. And it led right into Shocktoberfest which started in September.
What’s something you’re financially proud of?
I am proud of the fact that I was able to start a [catering] company when I was in high school and keep it going for the past 39 years. I’m also very proud that the company I started was successful enough for me to live comfortably and raise four amazing kids.
What’s something you financially regret?
They say the only ship you should never sail is a partnership. Sadly a number of years ago I got into business with someone who at a point in time in my life I considered a friend. It turned out this friend was a person with less than high morals and ended up costing me a lot of money in a failed partnership.
What would you do with a $1 million windfall?
Give it to my stock broker and have it have him manage it in a well-balanced portfolio. Yes, it’s boring, but I need to begin to take less risks.
What’s the best money you’ve ever spent?
Every dollar that I’ve ever spent in my company to keep it running and to make it better has yielded the best return possible.
What’s the best money you’ve ever saved?
I drive a car with 300,000 miles. I do not like to spend money on automobiles.
Image: Patrick Konopelski