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Apr 26, 2023

That bag of spicy peanuts you picked up at Sheetz?

The trail mix at a local grocery store?

How about those dark-chocolate covered cranberries you picked up to satisfy a sweet tooth?

Chances are good they were all prepared and packaged at Hickory Harvest, a Coventry Township business that started as a family operation and remains one — a much bigger one — three generations later.

On July 19, Hickory Harvest will celebrate a half-century of growth and transformation from a portable enterprise that Joseph and Pauline Swiatkowski founded in 1972 by selling smoked sausage and cheeses at county fairs.

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"When my dad and grandpa started the company 50 years ago, [it] was not in traditional supermarkets," Hickory Harvest President and CEO Joe Swiatkowski said in a recent interview.

The fair booths led to a store by the late 1970s and development in the 1980s of current product lines that include roasted nuts, dried fruits and confections.

"In 1982, dad bought a french-fryer," Swiatkowski said. "He [cooked] 20 pounds of nuts in it. Now we roast 30,000 to 40,000 pounds a day."

At one time, the company operated a cheese and wine shop in Rolling Acres Mall.

Swiatkowski's parents met there, later getting engaged during a date at Parasson's, Swiatkowski said. By the ’90s, Hickory Harvest was expanding into grocery stores and national convenience store chains.

The company built its current headquarters on Logan Parkway in 2009, moving from the Killian Road location it had operated at for 20 years.

Since it moved to the Coventry Township location, the company has added expansions to the facility in 2013 and 2018 and another is in the works, Swiatkowski said.

The nuts, fruits and flavors that make up Hickory Harvest trail mix products place it in a high-growth and highly competitive segment of the food industry.

Technavio, a market research company, forecasts the trail mix sector will grow about 12% this year and 12.7% a year through 2026. It's a wave Hickory Harvest is riding to new heights.

The company stays nimble by keeping track of industry trends and developing products to meet consumers’ changing appetites, Swiatkowski said.

"You stay in business by listening to your customers," he said. "We’re a fast follower."

Hickory Harvest invested about $750,000 this year in new equipment to make those new products and streamline operations for the products it makes, he said, including 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of trail mix per day.

Swiatkowski said his company continued to grow last year, pushing through the same labor shortages and supply-chain disruptions that businesses throughout the country had to overcome.

"2021 was a very difficult year," he said. "The most difficult I ever had to deal with."

The company went from 85 employees in February 2021 to 50 full-time employees in June.

By summer, staffing was so depleted that Swiatkowski drafted one of his three daughters to work.

"If you don't want to work [here], you have to get me five people [who do]," he told her. "She got me eight."

His daughter recruited people she knew who helped fill the void, keeping production lines going and giving Hickory Harvest time to hire new workers.

"They were really key to last summer," he said. "It would have been dire without them."

A year later, the company still has positions open it's seeking to fill, Swiatkowski said.

"We’re short on direct manufacturing employees, like everyone is," he said.

Orders to suppliers, too, were affected as they struggled with their own labor and supply issues.

"We went from a three-week lead time to 12 weeks," he said.

Swiatkowski, who bought the family business from his mother in August 2020, had handled Hickory Harvest's operations side since the death of his father, George Swiatkowsi, in 2003.

"My mom wanted to have nothing to do with operations," Swiatkowski said. "She said, ‘You have to run it or we’re going to have to sell it.’ And we figured it out from there."

The company's nut-roasting machine pays homage to his father, with a large sign hanging over the production line designating it as "Big George."

Swiatkowski became involved with the family business at an early age, he said, working in the warehouse as a teen before taking a job outside the company after college. It didn't take long for him to return, with his role expanding rapidly.

"I always enjoyed the business," he said. "I’ve known how to do everything in here [since] I was 12."

By 2004, he was president of the company his grandfather founded, adding CEO to his title after the purchase. His mother, Darlene, became chair emeritus after retiring.

Swiatkowski said the company has evolved as consumer tastes have changed and food safety regulations have stiffened. Hickory Harvest continues to invest heavily to ensure its 250-plus products stay on top of trends and are safe, he said. Six employees work to comply and exceed food safety regulations.

"We [have] a budget of about $600,000 a year for our quality personnel and programs," he said.

Swiatkowski said his company is looking to expand by adding new products that capture consumer interest and by acquisitions.

"We’re definitely looking at acquisitions," he said. "We have aggressive growth plans."

The company distributes in all 48 contiguous states and has some overseas clients, most notably in South Korea. Swiatkowski said the company will concentrate on the U.S. for its growth plans.

It recently introduced dark chocolate almond and peanut butter products that have been well received, Swiatkowski said.

Trail mix flavors are constantly evolving, he said, with dill an emerging flavor to watch.

"Sweet and savory is where trail mixes are going," he said.

He plans to continue adding new products as market trends develop.

"Our biggest foray right now is into private label [products]," he said. "...Branding is where you get a lot of notice."

The trail mix market is dominated by household names like J.M. Smucker, General Mills, Kellogg Co. and PepsiCo, but Swiatkowski said he hopes to keep a family feel at Hickory Harvest.

The 50th anniversary celebration on July 19 will include family-themed activities like a cornhole tournament, a DJ, and food trucks, he said.

"It started out as family, [and] we treat our workers as family," he said. "I want to continue that as we go."

He's not sure if the company will be led by a fourth generation of Swiatkowskis, but doesn't appear overly concerned about it. All three of his daughters, ages 10, 14 and 19, have career plans that may lead in other directions.

"Only 3% of family businesses get to the third generation," he said.

Swiatkowski said he has his own go-to snacks among the many varieties the company produces.

"My favorite is a honey-roasted pecan," he said. Cashews are a close second.

Although he plans to expand Hickory Harvest's reach, Swiatkowski hasn't forgotten the company's roots.

"We had one small machine here when my dad passed away," he said. "One roaster and one [packager]."

Leave a message for Alan Ashworth at 330-996-3859 or email him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @newsalanbeaconj.

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Interested in a tour of Hickory Harvest? Call 800-448-NUTS (6887).

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