Wife-and-husband owners Kimbo and Jason Schirato have seen a big uptick in orders for their hyper-customized camper vans.
The Schiratos launched Aspen Custom Vans after realizing the first adventure van they purchased wasn’t what they expected. “It wasn’t really set up the way we wanted it to be, so we did some remodeling, and when we were taking it apart we realized that the quality wasn’t particularly there compared to the price that the original owner paid for the van,” says Jason. “So we just thought, ‘Hey, we could probably do this a little bit better and maybe a little bit cheaper,’ and that’s how it started.”
Since starting the company in 2018, they’ve seen interest grow. “I think our first year we built two vans and did a bunch of small projects,” Jason says. “The following year, I think we built five or six vans and then it was kind of the same the next year.”
The trend is accelerating in 2021. “This year we’re kind of tripling our capacity,” he says. “We’ll hit right around 12 to 15 vans this year.”
COVID-19 has actually proved a sales catalyst, Jason adds. “We went from getting a few emails and one or two phone calls a week talking about builds, to getting 20 emails a day and now I’m on the phone half of the day, every day.”
They’re adjusting to that spike in demand, though Aspen Custom Vans has typically done more work in the summer months than in the winter months. That’s also somewhat complicated by the fact that it’s currently working out of two shops near Aspen in Basalt.
“We’ve kept our workload a little lighter just because it’s a little bit harder to get as much stuff done in the winter,” says Jason. “It gets kind of hard pulling vans in and out and getting snow on the floor, so we kind of like to keep the number of vans that we’re building is what we can keep inside.”
This summer, they’re looking to build even more and have been working on about four vans at a time with the help of several contractors. “We kind of loaded ourselves up this summer just to see if we could keep up with demand,” says Jason. “We generally try to work on two vans at a time, but now, we have a couple extra hands.”
The company is relying on contractors rather than hiring more employees as part of a slow-growth strategy. “We’re trying to be careful with how much we grow, just because we don’t know what’s going to happen a year from now,” Jason states. “Overhead is super high in the Roaring Fork Valley, space is expensive, healthcare is expensive. We’re just trying to make it through the next year or so to see how we’re going to grow more.”
In the meantime, Aspen Custom Vans is living up to its name. “Everything we’ve done thus far is a one-off: We build everything custom for the client,” Jason explains. “We had thought about moving more into a three-model kind of style like a lot of the other builders are doing just to help with efficiency, but we’ve actually gotten four or five builds that we’re doing this summer because we could build what the client wanted and not what we wanted to build.”
The increase in demand is tempered by ever-higher materials costs. Jason says he’s seen steel and aluminum jump 30 percent in 2021, and a similar hike for the cabinets he purchases from a Denver-based woodworker. “We’re seeing the biggest price increases in the finished woods and sanded plywoods. For instance, we used to get them for just under $50 a sheet if we’re buying one sheet and I think that they’re upwards of $70-plus now.”
Though the company is primarily making custom vans, it also has some vans available for rent. It currently has two, but is making a third after selling one of its former rentals.
Jason says the Schirato family still enjoys using the vehicles as well. “Whenever we need a van, we’ll take one. But we have to book it, because everybody wants to rent a van.”
Challenges: “At the moment just keeping up with demand and keeping our customers happy with schedules,” Jason says.
Opportunities: In the future, the company could expand its rental fleet. “Realistically, if we had someone to manage our rental side of the business, we would definitely get more vans,” says Jason. “But it’s a little bit too much at the moment with all the builds we have and all the rentals we have to think about having even more vans.”
Most fleets of rental vans are fairly simple in comparison with fully custom vehicles. “We think an opportunity might be to build some smaller, simpler vans when we can build them in two weeks or so, and just build up a fleet in the future,” says Jason.
Needs: “A little more space would be nice,” says Jason. “I think that’s about it. We’ve got a pretty good core set of contractors that we’re working with at the moment.”