SARATOGA SPRINGS — Sometimes when you dream of owning a business, you just have to hop to it and get those big wheels turning.
That certainly seems to have been the case with a veteran who transitioned to civilian life by recently starting his own touring business, Spa City Brew Bus.
Ballston Spa resident Mike Hojnicki's goal in running the 24-passenger bus is to showcase New York state's flourishing craft beverage scene by taking guests to a variety of breweries, cideries, wineries and distilleries. Passengers get to hear introductions to the establishments they visit and then enjoy alcoholic beverages made there in a responsible manner.
Really, who better to move people around in an organized, on-time manner than someone with military training?
After retiring from the U.S. Air Force in 2015 as a master sergeant, Hojnicki even did a stint working at a local brewery. "I'd say that actually sparked my interest in getting the Brew Bus started," he says.
He's also a full-time student at Schenectady County Community College, working toward an associate degree in craft brewing.
"It's not just about brewing beer, but about the whole field — including sales and marketing, costs, inventory control, various aspects of brewing."
With that kind of knowledge, "Mike has an easy time talking to [bus tour clients] about the whole process of what went into the craft beverages they're trying," says his wife and business partner, Heather Hojnicki.
The Spa City Brew Bus made its first run in October. The next month, it was recognized with certification by the state Division of Service-Disabled Veterans' Business Development.
With its eye-catching wrap-around graphics in black, white, bright green and yellow, the bus elicits questions from passersby wherever it goes.
"Anyone who sees us at a stop wants to find out more about the bus," Mike says. "Sometimes they even want to get on. They see the logo (the color scheme of which is based on hops) and ask about that, too."
Mike credits Heather with helping him develop the logo and an accompanying coat-of-arms sort of design — as well as with being supportive throughout Mike's buying a bus and starting the business.
Inspired on way to South Pole
How he got interested in owning a tour bus relates directly to some of his off-hours experiences as part of the New York Air National Guard at Stratton Air National Guard Base in Glenville.
"From about 2004 to 2015, I was with the 109th [Airlift Wing] here in Schenectady," says Hojnicki, who's spent a total of 21 years in the military. "We had the Antarctica mission."
He describes the frozen destination as breathtaking and considers himself lucky to be one of "only about 10,000 people to have gone to the South Pole."
On the way down to Antarctica, though, the group would stop in New Zealand and spend from one to three days there, depending on the nature of each trip to the Antarctic Circle.
In their spare time, mission members would educate themselves on New Zealand's wine production by "renting a bus and going on wine tours," he says. "That's what we'd do. So this [line of work] has always been on my mind since then, but I didn't think I'd start it up quite this soon."
The Spa City Brew Bus is a strictly New York touring business despite lots of New England possibilities within easy driving distance — "because New York state has so much to offer."
The customized tours average four hours and usually feature three or four stops, with 45 minutes devoted to each location. This allows time to talk to the brewers or the owners of the facility, says Hojnicki, "and plenty of time for tastings."
He's handled a lot of birthday parties and corporate outings and is starting to book more bachelor and bachelorette parties.
"Right now I operate within a 100-mile radius of Saratoga Springs, going up as far as Schroon Lake and down to the Hudson area. We will do [Brewery] Ommegang runs in the Cooperstown area, too."
Hojnicki praises SCCC for helping smooth the road to networking with area craft beverage entrepreneurs. "Before I even started, I met with managers of various establishments." According to his pamphlet, he is currently working with more than 75 such businesses.
Once guests board the bus, "It's really about the VIP experience."
The air-conditioned bus has comfortable seating and is equipped with such amenities as LED mood lighting, television, Wi-Fi, stereo and karaoke. Any purchases made along the way by guests can be stored in a cooler installed at the back of the bus.
For longer trips, bingo, raffles and trivia games figure into the experience, and water, snacks and candy are available.
"Mike likes to keep them engaged and entertained," says Heather.
Getting home safely
Creature comforts aside, priority No. 1 is safety.
Hojnicki says he addresses personal responsibility right on the bus and makes guests agree that they will have designated drivers or use taxi, Uber or Lyft rides to get themselves back home. "We try to have convenient pick-up/drop-off locations to help with getting rides to their houses. We will even pick up some groups in their own neighborhood, if enough neighbors want to do this."
Right now, the tour runs are on weekends, but Hojnicki will "be looking at seven days a week come summer." To do this, he will need to hire more drivers and guides, since he is the only guide at present and there is just one driver (a veteran with school bus driving experience). He would prefer that all drivers and guides have military experience.
And, of course, a longer-range goal is to run a second bus.
How different is this line of work from what Hojnicki used to do in the military?
"Well, I used to run an airfield and now I run a bus. I'd like to say it's a little easier," he says with a laugh, eyes twinkling, "but ..."