Home / Business Spotlight / ‘A necessary pivot’: Companies produce new products in response to COVID-19

‘A necessary pivot’: Companies produce new products in response to COVID-19

J. Rieger & Co.

Brennan Maybee and Kate Ryan fill small bottles of hand sanitizer at J. Rieger & Co. in Kansas City. in March, the distillery shifted from making alcohol to making hand sanitizer as a way to keep staff employed and help the community. (Photo courtesy of Andy Rieger)

In March, the owners of a Kansas City distillery watched the demand for its products dry up as local governments implemented stay-at-home orders, bringing their bar- and restaurant-related business to a screeching halt.

In response, J. Rieger & Co. turned to a new product to help the company make money and keep employees working: hand sanitizer. They have since produced thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer, selling and donating the product to the general public, local governments, utility workers, first responders and area hospitals.

The company is one of many throughout Missouri finding inventive ways to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

Andy Rieger, the company’s president and CEO, said the effort began after the company started fielding questions about hand sanitizer from people who’d seen distilleries on the coasts making the product.

At first, he said no. He said the distilleries that were making hand sanitizer were producing small bottles as a giveaway for customers more as a PR move rather than scaling up production. He continued to field queries about the subject until the idea fully clicked.

“It was sort of this moment of realization that, ‘Oh wow, this is something that is actually needed incredibly,’” he said. “Our whole team said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Rieger said the company has gone through multiple versions of the product to improve it. J. Rieger & Co. now is producing approximately 2,000 gallons a day.

When the company first opened up hand sanitizer sales to the public, offering 2-ounce and 2-liter bottles, citizens came in droves to take them up on their pay-what-you-can offer.

Producing hand sanitizer has given the company a way to keep its workers employed and also help the community, he said.

The community’s response and support has been overwhelming, while the crisis has shown “just who people really are in Kansas City, and how kind and thoughtful most people are,” he said.

Rieger emphasizes, however, that J. Rieger & Co. is not becoming a hand sanitizer company for the long-term.

“We’re not buying a bunch of equipment,” he said.

Rieger said the company is in a fortunate position to be able to transition into something new as demand for alcohol goes down. Still, he said it’s hard to know what the future holds.

“At some point it’s going to end,” he said. “So that’s where we’re really scared. What does the other side look like once China reopens and they’re sending trillions of gallons of hand sanitizer to the U.S.?”

Rieger said everyone will remember what they were doing during the COVID-19 crisis, and he said he is glad his memories will involve working with his team.

“It’s a necessary pivot that we had to do — it was either lay everyone off like everyone else or try to figure it out and fight for the people you care about,” he said. “Initially we thought, ‘We love our family. What can we do to keep our family together?’ That was our initial motivating factor.”

Once his workers saw the need, he said, “Everyone’s mentality shifted on our team from ‘Wow, we have to do this’ to ‘We’re in a position to do this.’”

From menus to medical supplies

Another Kansas City company that has shifted its efforts in order to meet market demand is the Trabon Group, a 50-year-old, family-owned printing company.

It established a separate company, USA Shields, and began making plastic face shields that can be worn over masks.

In normal times, the printing company mainly serves national restaurant chain clients, printing their menus and helping them manage their menu content across different markets, according to Tony Trabon, part-owner of Trabon Group.

During the weekend of March 20, about 11 states implemented stay-at-home orders, upending the company’s business model.

“That’s when we realized the restaurants probably wouldn’t be our primary business for the foreseeable future,” he said. “We call ourselves a printing company, but recently we’ve been a medical-supply company.”

He said the company’s CFO, Shawn Nicholas, bought a face mask from China and was showing it to the production team when he wondered if the team could make a similar product. The company had a die cutter and could cut plastic, Trabon said.

Going into that weekend, it was still just an idea, and company leaders thought they might be able to still get business from restaurants that needed to shift to new takeout menus, Trabon said.

When they returned the following week, however, they received calls from clients asking to delay campaigns they’d had in the works, he said.

“Due to the sizable nature of the clients, we had to make a decision on what we were doing,” he said. “That day was the day that we kind of brought our production team together and said, ‘OK, if we’re going to make these face shields, how are we going to do it?”

Immediately, the production team was able to source foam and plastic for the face shields, as well as elastic bands and grommets. The company bought a foam-cutting machine from a local company.

By March 25, the company was able to start producing face shields, keeping 25 full-time employees working in two shifts, Trabon said.

As of April 5, the company had shipped approximately 65,000 shields to individuals and hospitals across the country, he said.

Trabon said the company is navigating uncharted waters, including the world of health care and its supply chains. The company also has donated shields to health care workers in New York and New Jersey.

Production of the shields is tough and tedious, and it requires more hands-on effort than normal printing work, he said. Still, he has heard no complaints from any members of his team.

“Everybody’s just working so hard, and everybody’s so grateful that we have a paycheck coming in,” he said. “If we weren’t doing the medical business right now, we’d likely have to furlough our workers because there’s no cash flow otherwise until restaurants come back.”

He said his team is also focused on the altruistic side of their work. The company is posting thank-you notes from doctors and nurses on a wall of its production plant, he added.

“I think we’re working on something that has a higher purpose,” he said.

USA Shields

Within days of deciding to shift from making restaurant menus to making face shields, the Trabon Group was able to source foam and plastic for shields, as well as a foam cutter. (Photo courtesy of Tony Trabon)

Furniture-maker shifts to face shields

In St. Louis, another small business also is producing face shields as part of a volunteer effort.

David Cervantes, who normally makes furniture and home décor through his small business Cervantes Designs, has switched to producing components for the shields.

Cervantes is a volunteer leader of the Face Shield Initiative STL, an effort bringing together a network of people in St. Louis who own 3D printers to print needed components of face shields.

He is using his 3D printer to create a head frame for the shields, while others are laser-cutting PETG film, or polyethylene terephthalate glycol, which makes up the shield itself.

Cervantes said he began the effort by putting out feelers to people he knows on social media. Someone whose husband is an emergency room physician reached out, and one connection led to another.

Within a day, Cervantes put together about a dozen shields, which he took to the physician to distribute. After getting the go-ahead from the doctor’s chain of command, he was able to get started quickly.

As of late March, Cervantes said they’d sent out a total of about 300 face shields to two hospital systems in St. Louis. As of April 4, the initiative has made more than 1,100 face shields.

Working with other makers in St. Louis has made a large difference in the scale of work the group has been able to do, Cervantes said.

“If I were to print 24 hours a day on my personal two 3D printers, it would take 18 days to print just the frames,” he said.

By tapping into the maker community in St. Louis, which includes other small businesses like his own, he’s been able to identify more than 30 other people who own at least one 3D printer. He said the broader community has helped to scale up the effort.

For the most part, 3D printing is hands-off, Cervantes said. He uses an open-source file that tells the machine what to print. He’s able to do other work as the printer completes the job. A few hours later, he retrieves the components, using sanitary precautions, and stows them in a sanitized plastic container.

As an industrial designer, Cervantes uses 3D printing for rapid prototyping. He said 3D printing has helped him to facilitate a rapid-manufacturing model.

“It’s science fiction,” he said. “You think of something, plug it in and it spits it out.”

Cervantes is humble about his role in the process, saying he’s “just a dude who just happened to have 3D printers” and does what he can.

“It means a lot more to me that the maker community in the St. Louis community at large has been able to set aside their differences and unite under one cause and make sure people on the front lines are getting what they need,” he said. “A lot of us makers are stir-crazy anyways.”

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