When Nic and Joanna Merrill heard about shortages of hand sanitizer in Southwest Michigan, they began wondering how their company, craft distillery Kalamazoo Stillhouse, could help fill the void.
As soon as the company received federal regulatory clarity on producing sanitizer, the Merrills immediately got to work figuring out how to make the product in their Kalamazoo-based distillery.
“I already had vodka in process that met the ethanol requirements for what the WHO formulation required,” Nic Merrill said. “We said, ‘Hey, we’ll throw some time and money at this.’”
The federal agency issued the guidance on a Wednesday. The Merrills found out about it on Thursday morning, ordered 500 2-ounce personal sized bottles via next-day shipping and started preparing the liquid. That Friday, they filled the bottles with sanitizer and labeled them, and Joanna Merrill put up a social media post about the company giving away free sanitizer that weekend.
“I went to bed that night and we woke up in the morning and 65,000 people had seen that I took my silly little picture of a hand sanitizer bottle,” she said.
They moved the entire initial batch over the weekend, and then the company faced another dilemma: Do they buy more bottles and keep producing sanitizer, or do they keep focused on their main business of making spirits?
“We were toeing the line between, ‘Wow, there’s a big need for this, and we’re all of a sudden able to do this. We have to keep going,’ and, ‘Holy moly, that’s a lot of labeling and dealing with all the (hassle),’” she said.
“Every few days, I think, ‘Is it viable for us to do this?’’’ Nic Merrill said. “We were doing small personal-sized bottles, which were not inexpensive. It costs us about $2 a bottle to do it and we were basically giving those away. But we’re going to get to the point where we really can’t afford to do that.”
The situation was further compounded as breweries in the Kalamazoo area started to reach out to see if Kalamazoo Stillhouse was interested in taking some beer they planned to dump and turning it into sanitizer. The company is in the process of some early trial runs with the beer that look promising, at least for the short term, and has adopted a blended model of selling and donating sanitizer.
Aside from figuring out the push/pull of sanitizer production, the Merrills also were closing in on leasing space for a tasting room in downtown Kalamazoo when the pandemic hit, but that deal is currently on hold. Kalamazoo Stillhouse currently sells via distribution and limited direct-to-consumer sales at its production facility; it does not have a tasting room.
“We could’ve been in a really bad spot had we signed a lease in March because we would then have been on the hook for that, and it’s not like we can have contractors into a facility right now for non-essential stuff,” Nic Merrill said, noting the company hopes to re-engage on the property after the shutdown and various restrictions are lifted.
“We are hopefully in a better position than most to weather this storm,” he said. “I think we’ll be OK. I’m feeling terrible for a lot of the businesses that are not going to be.”
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