Meet Your Merchant: XPCamper
August 9, 2016
As a child growing up in Munich, Germany, Marc Wassmann loved to help out in the kitchen. By the time he was 15, he was already working as a chef's apprentice.
His top notch training eventually led to jobs in Switzerland, London and Paris. He finally settled in San Francisco where he worked as a chef at such luxury hotels as The Ritz-Carlton and the Mandarin Oriental. But Wassmann didn't stop there. He launched a successful catering company, which eventually peaked at 50 employees, then went on to open seven gourmet cafes around the Bay Area.
After years of hard work, Wassmann's businesses were finally in a position to run themselves.
That's when he and his wife, Toni Ann Lee, began hitting the road on weekends to do something they'd long wanted to do: camp.
They'd take off on Thursdays and head for their favorite campsite — a secluded Sierra lake that required driving more than two hours down a dirt road.
"We found a perfect spot by the shore between these two trees and set up a tent," said Wassmann. "But after awhile we got tired of loading and unloading the truck every weekend."
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As a result, Wassmann began searching for the perfect four-wheel drive camper that could hold up on rough, off-road terrain. Not satisfied with what was on the market, he had a Colorado camper company custom build one using their materials, which included many unique specifications, such as fitting between the two trees at their favorite campsite.
But it didn't take long before the camper started falling apart, said Wassmann.
"I looked around at all the campers on the market and wondered why they're all made with such flimsy materials," he said. "The construction is horrible. For just a little bit more money they could be made so much better. So I decided to build my own personal camper."
It took Wassmann about seven years to build the "ultimate camper." He meticulously researched materials and began tinkering in a boat yard situated in a gritty part of Point Richmond.
In 2007, he hired a naval architect.
"I wanted to build the camper like a boat because they're built to last," he said. "When you're in the middle of the ocean in high impact conditions, you're screwed if things don't work."
In 2009, Wassmann's prototype was finally finished. It was built for extended trips in the backcountry. Despite being equipped with a stove, refrigerator, shower and toilet, the camper could also store 80 gallons of water and offered an unprecedented amount of dry storage.
It was powered by a solar panel, which, as Wassmann said, "Had no boom factor."
His market research revealed that he had hit upon an idea at the right time. People were "tired of the old stuff," and the market for quality "overland" or "expedition" campers was exploding.
"I'd get stuck talking for an hour in gas stations," said Wassmann, with a laugh. "Everybody wanted to know where I got my camper."
In 2009, he reluctantly went to an "Overland Expo" in Arizona, a large event geared for do-it-yourself adventure travel enthusiasts. There were only 500 people there. By 2016, however, the event had drawn more than 10,000 with lines out the door, said Wassmann.
Yet even at the first smaller event, Wassmann's prototype was attracting attention. He sold it to someone who shipped the camper to Africa for a road trip that lasted a year and a half. He took the money from the first sale and built second one, then a third. Five years ago, he began taking orders and sold his restaurant businesses in the Bay Area.
Eager to move out of the city and acquire enough space to build campers (by then they had 10 orders), Wassmann and Lee moved to Nevada County. It was no coincidence that their new home was several hours closer to their favorite camping spot.
The company, XPCamper, quickly outgrew its initial space. Today, it occupies a 45,000 square foot warehouse off Whispering Pines Lane in Grass Valley. XPCamper now has a staff of 22. To date, they have built 75 campers, with 22 on order. They've shipped "units" as far as Australia and Canada. Others have been taken by their owners around the world.
"We have a backlog of a year," said Wassmann. "We can't build them fast enough. Eventually we want to get to the point where we're building one a week."
Discouraged by today's throw-away mentality, Wassmann said he is determined to build campers that last.
The company now offers three models, with the biggest — the V1 —being the most popular. To cut down on wind resistance, the XPCamper pops up with a remote-controlled hydraulic lift. The expandable model also means it can easily fit into a shipping crate, a plus for international adventurers.
The the front bed over the cab is made from waterproof marine-grade material with signature large windows. The refrigerator does not need to be level, and the "wet bath" includes a shower and Thetford cassette toilet, regularly used in European campers.
It has a removable holding tank that can be easily emptied into a dumping station or regular toilet.
Wassmann's vehicle of choice for the V1 is a one-ton Ford or Dodge pickup modified with a custom "XP Truck Tray" system, allowing for easy removal of the camper.
"It's the one for baby boomers and retirees who want to drive around the world," said Wassmann. "We sent to Australia and the owner drove across the Simpson Desert."
Lee, who worked as a graphic designer for 20 years in San Francisco, now oversees purchasing, HR, and anything else that comes across her desk. Wassmann, her spouse of 20 years, still loves to cook at home, she said. "But that's the only chore he does," she said, with a laugh.
"The irony of this business venture is that it all started from us wanting to go camping more," said Wassmann, from behind his desk. "Now we work six days a week."
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
180 Clydesdale Court, Grass Valley