KENTWOOD — The coronavirus pandemic has caused many businesses to make staff cuts, but Wise Men Distillery LLC hired two new employees to assist with its shift to producing large quantities of hand sanitizer for manufacturers and state agencies.
The distillery and tasting room opened last year at 4717 Broadmoor Ave. SE in Kentwood, and produces gin, rum, vodka, whiskey and bourbon. Out of necessity, the company had to consider other opportunities to generate business when it was only able to sell bottled spirits from its tasting room after the state-mandated shutdown of dine-in services at restaurants and bars, which ran from March 16-June 8.
“We couldn’t have people come in and try our stuff anymore,” said Jason Post, a co-owner and head distiller at Wise Men Distillery. “We had bottles available for sale, but that was diminishing rapidly — our bottle sales were going down.”
Wise Men’s staff sat down to talk about producing hand sanitizer after seeing other distilleries starting to shift production in an attempt to stay open and help fill the high demand for the product. The company’s efforts kicked into gear when leaders of the local Amazon distribution center reached out to distillery staff to ask if they could produce sanitizer for its facility and employees.
The shift to sanitizer production also was made possible in part by a postponed spirits order that left the company with a sizable inventory and freed up its stills, according to Post.
“We have ended up selling (Amazon) close to 5,000 gallons of hand sanitizer between them and another partner,” Post said. “It helped us set up a new line and create new jobs. We were able to hire people during this pandemic to come in, fill bottles and create work for people who needed it and keep our regular employees on.”
Wise Men Distillery also ended up producing 30,000 gallons of hand sanitizer for the state of Michigan, which was distributed to medical centers, the National Guard and hospitals throughout the state. The distillery has also donated close to 10,000 gallons of sanitizer to local fire, police departments and municipalities around the state, Post said.
The distillery created a separate Wise Men Sanitizer division once its hand sanitizer product received FDA approval. Customers will continue to be able to walk in and buy the sanitizer at the distillery’s Kentwood location.
“We are really fortunate we are small enough and we were able to turn on a dime and start producing sanitizer,” Post said.
The company hired two full-time employees to help meet the demand, Post said, adding that family members also volunteered to fill large orders.
While those large orders have now slowed, Post expects hand sanitizer will be a requirement at most workplaces in the near future.
With the Wise Men Distillery tasting room in Kentwood reopened, the partners’ focus is shifting back to producing spirits. As well, construction of a 24-seat off-site tasting room in McKay Tower in downtown Grand Rapids is poised to resume in the near future after delays stemming from the pandemic and, more recently, a May 30 uprising that resulted in smashed windows and damage to about 100 downtown businesses.
“Fairly shortly, we should get construction crews in there,” Post said.
Even though there is a 50-percent capacity restriction in place for restaurants and bars, Wise Men Distillery will likely benefit from downtown social zones that will extend outdoor seating for establishments, he said. The downtown tasting room, which also will sell the company’s bottled spirits, should have more opportunities for walk-in business compared to its flagship location.
“There’s not many liquor stores downtown but there are more and more people living and working down there,” Post said. “We’re out here in Kentwood and don’t have a lot of foot traffic.”
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