In a normal world, Steve Shriver manufactures organic and free-trade lip balm and other personal care items through EcoLips, his business in Marion, Iowa. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, his own company was trying to order hand sanitizer for their employees but couldn’t get any from their regular suppliers nor anywhere online.
Knowing the recipe for hand sanitizer is fairly simply, Shriver briefly considered making their own, but he soon learned it also was impossible to source any isopropyl alcohol, the key ingredient in hand sanitizer.
So Shriver reached out to a friend of his, Dr. Ryan Sundermann of Cedar Ridge Distillery, and explored the idea of making hand sanitizer out of grain alcohol. A week ago, it was a federal offense for a distillery to use their alcohol for this purpose, but those restrictions have been lifted with the COVID-19 crisis. A hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol kills the Coronavirus, and is an alternative when soap isn’t available.
“In a short amount of time, we made 1,000 bottles at the distillery, and we knew we wanted to give them out to the community,” Shriver says. “The next step was figuring out how to get the word out.”
Shriver put a message up on Facebook and within hours hundreds of people had responded. “Some had elderly parents at hospitals and care centers that were running low on hand sanitizer, and we also heard from EMTs and hundreds of residents,” he says. “While we could have dropped the bottles off at retail locations, we didn’t want to contribute to spreading the virus, so we decided to launch a hand sanitizer drive thru for the public.”
On March 18, EcoLips and Cedar Ridge Distillery partnered with New Bo City Market in nearby Cedar Rapids to set up a drive thru in the farmer’s market’s parking lot at 10 a.m. “More than 300 cars were lined up and the police department were there to help guide traffic," Shriver says. "Volunteers, wearing masks and gloves passed out the free bottles of hand sanitizer to each car, and we gave away all of it in a few hours.”
Both Shriver and Sundermann are committed to going back into production and giving out the small bottles to the community until hand sanitizer is back on the shelves. “For now we are absorbing the costs, but we’ve also decided to start manufacturing it by the gallon and selling it to commercial businesses that have reached out to us, and that will help offset the production cost of the smaller donated bottles.”
Through the production process, Shriver also discovered there’s a shorter of small containers. “Part of that is because a lot of packaging comes from China, but it’s also because traditional hand sanitizer manufacturers are buying up packaging,” he says. “But people have been extraordinarily generous—friends have donated 500 bottles here, a honey company also donated bottles and today I showed up to the office and there were 2,000 bottles showed up out of nowhere from a company I hadn’t even reached out to.”
EcoLips is a B corporation, that has committed to balance people, product and profit. “We do have to make a profit to be in the position to give it away, but this is one of those times that we’ve set aside profit to do what’s right for the community,” Shriver says.
In Canada, EvelineCharles Salons, Spas and Beauty MD has made luxury, salon quality hand sanitizers as part of its private label beauty products business since 2016. For the last year, the salon has been partnering with Red Cup Distillery, based near Edmonton, Alberta, just getting approval last week to manufacturer hand sanitizer with the distillery’s denatured alcohol from wheat.
"The alcohol made from wheat has a different smell, it's a cleaner product," says Lina Heath, president of EC Labs. "What makes this unique is the speed to market. It uausaaly takes six months to get a product approved--the facily has to be approved by Health Canada and then the formula has to be approved. But we have a direct line and are getting our clearances in three days."
Because of consumer demand, EvelineCharles and Red Cup Distillery are ramping up their production. "We first started approaching our traditional retailers, but then we've been on the television news twice and we have calls in from all the governmental social services, large customers and retail chain and have had some $300,000 sales days."
With the new approvals in place, Eveline Charles is set to scale up production next week and be at full production the week after.
Like EcoLips, EvelineCharles is having a challenging time resourcing bottles because the source material comes from China and COVID-19 has shut down that supply, so they have partnered with a local water company to source their larger bottles.