Nestled among the fields of Honey Brook, PA is a beautiful Amish farm. From the road it looks like most other local farms, with a farmhouse, pulley-style clothesline, flowerbeds, sprawling outbuildings, fields, and pastures. A small sign is the only apparent evidence of a bustling business inside the shop.
Yonie's Harness shop is not just another harness shop. It is an internationally active company selling modern products at a competitive price. Their specialty is Biothane, a tough material made out of synthetic products. They also use imitation leather as needed. Though they do occasionally make small genuine leather products on request, their niche is synthetic.
In 1992 Jonathon "Yonie" Stoltzfus was starting a harness shop. He had been introduced to Biothane, and he decided to use it. Many people said he was crazy, but he decided to take the risk. Today the company is very happy with the decision he made 29 years ago.
We interviewed Jonathan's adult son Christ (Christian), who was very helpful and informative. He also shared his story of joining the business and gave us a tour of their facility. He first explained what goes into a Biothane belt. A strong nylon webbing is extruded with polyester, and the compound is coated with polyurethane. This is known as Biothane Beta. It is mostly used in personnel fields, as its coating is too soft for harnesses. The Biothane for harnesses has a stronger coating.
Biothane is produced at a plant in Ohio, so most of the belt is made in the US. The buckles, however, come from outside the country. Christ also explained they like to joke around that the belts are vegan, because no known animal products are used to make Biothane. They do not guarantee this to be the case though, as they have not checked in-depth.
Christ remembers working in the belt shop at a young age. When he was older, he worked in construction for six years. Unfortunately, an accident limited his ability to work there, so he returned to the harness shop. Despite the disappointing end to his construction career, Christ pressed on and settled in quickly. Being artistically-minded person, he enjoys the challenges that come with the work. His favorite task is designing complex custom harnesses for six-horse teams.
Yonie's Harness Shop also deals out some of the work to local sub-shops. This gives others the chance to work from home by sewing individual parts. Each week Jonathon drives around to the various sub-shops to pick up completed products and drop off materials.
Are all the belts made by hand?
All of our products are at least partially handmade. A machine cuts and punches the belts, but the rest of the process is by hand. We try to train our coworkers to proceed with quality, and then speed. Our business motto is "Quality expected. Quality delivered!"
What products do you make besides belts?
Our main focus is harnesses. Everything from harnesses for service dogs to six-horse harnesses. Our biggest seller is the Amish driving harnesses, and then next would be the standard racing harnesses and CD harnesses. Percentage-wise it would be about 40% Amish driving harnesses, 30% CD, 20% standard racing harnesses, and 10% draft and custom harnesses.
Did Yonie's make most of their products all along?
We started off with Amish driving harnesses, and then it would have graduated from there into other divisions. We have made belts for the last 10-15 years. Good's Store really started promoting them in the last 5 years. Someone in the belt division moved a display rack, and the sales just shot through the roof overnight. So that was wonderful here.
Does Yonie's employ mostly family members or do you have others as well?
We are family-owned; my dad, my brother Leroy, and I are partners. Right now there are four family members working here, those three and my sister Becky. The idea for the sub-shops was so older gentleman who cannot work in construction anymore can be able to have something they can work on at home. "Dad's goal when he started the business was to work at home with the family, so now he's trying to push that dream on by allowing other people to work at home with their families as well."
How has working with family shaped you?
"It has definitely shown us that families have their ups and downs and struggles, but it's allowed us to open up to each other and work with each other. Overall, a great experience, I would say."
What is one of the more rewarding parts of your job?
Probably seeing satisfied customers. Putting out a quality product that they can see and say, "Wow! That is amazing." We like to see photos from big projects from happy customers.
What is your secret to your happy customers?
The customer is always right. It can be hard to grasp, but once you can grasp that concept, it's pretty amazing. Try to have a personal relationship with every customer, make sure they know that they and their ideas are important. It's impossible to always please everybody, but that is a very big goal.
What were some milestones or turning points for your company?
One of the big accomplishments was being able to sell worldwide. In the last few years, we have started reaching out to other countries with our website, especially Europe. We ship about one package per week internationally. A lot of our standard racing harnesses are on our website, yonies.com, plus a pdf of other products.
What are some of the more challenging things?
Right now it would be freight slowdowns. We have to order pretty far out ahead. We have to watch our quantities and our supplier's quantities carefully to know when to order.
What some tips for belt care for customers who own Biothane belts?
Just throw them in the dishwasher with some regular soap. Do not use strong cleaners, and do not use at temperatures above 140° Fahrenheit. Normal dish or laundry soap is fine.
What is a long term goal for your company?
"Our dream would be to keep growing the business. Do we have a peak or a top vision? Not really. I think once you put a top goal on it you kind of max yourself out. We'll have to just see where the good Lord takes us. Our goal is to grow the business. How far? We don't know. The more people that we can give the opportunity to work at home, I take that as a blessing."
Yonie's Harness Shop is not just trying to make money. They want to create opportunities through the sub-shops for people to work at home with their families. By placing their values and the values of their customers first, they have been able to build a thriving business in a niche market.
Below are pictures that describe the process of making a belt, as well as several from around the harness shop.
The partially completed belt with the holes marked.
Punching out the holes.
Various punches are organized on a magnetic clip.
Cross section of the belt. The internal webbing is visible.
This machine, known as a roll punch, cuts the belts to length and punches out any necessary holes. It saves a lot of time, meaning more belts and harnesses can be produced.
A sewing machine.
Belts come from long strips of material Yonie's Harness Shop orders from Biothane.
Biothane can be ordered in many colors.
Sets of Harnesses wait to be shipped.
All photos by Susan Burkholder