Azaria Kokan works on the line bottling a sauce at Contract Comestibles. The East Troy small-batch, food-bottling plant is also making hand sanitizer for a local hospital group.

They shift on the fly to help deal with pandemic

By Tracy Ouellette

SLN Staff

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, an area business owner realized his company could help out with a desperately needed commodity that was in perilously short supply – hand sanitizer.

Andy Gehl, owner of Contract Comestibles in East Troy, has been able to keep his staff on and provide hand sanitizer to a local hospital group. The small-batch food processing plant is putting out the sanitizer as fast as they can get the materials for it into the plant.

“I knew we had the equipment and being in the industry long enough that I knew the contact for the raw ingredients, which are, right now, almost impossible to find,” Gehl said.

The venture is a two-part operation with Pak Technologies in Milwaukee, which came about through Gehl’s business dealings with Kevin Schuele, chief executive officer at Pak Technologies.

“I’m really working for Kevin,” Gehl said with a laugh. “It’s just one of those things that worked out very, very well because you have two people who have known each other for a very long time and each had half of what was needed for this project.

“He does wipes and he has all the contacts to get the raw materials for hand sanitizer, but he didn’t have the ability to bottle it. I do.”

Keeping employees

Gehl said the hand sanitizer gig has allowed him to keep his staff working because Contract Comestibles is considered an essential business.

“Being in the food business, we are considered essential, but I was looking at laying off staff before we started producing hand sanitizer,” Gehl said. “One of our single largest customers was an airline, so we saw a huge drop in volume come the end of February and obviously we don’t expect them to come back anytime soon.

“So, we were looking to lay off, still be open with fewer employees, but the hand sanitizer has been a saving grace.”

Mad scramble

Gehl said because of the uncertainty of when the needed materials for the hand sanitizer will be available and when it will arrive, plant production schedules have to be flexible.

“As soon as we hear the raw ingredients are available we fit it in because we know the hospital is looking for it as fast as they can get it,” he said. “As soon as a truck is heading in our direction, we do a mad scramble and kick out all the hand sanitizer we can and then go back to the food business,” he said.

In addition to supplying the local hospital group, Gehl said they have donated hand sanitizer to local municipalities, police departments and others.

“We give gifts of hand sanitizer to the local town halls where we live and work. Last week during the elections they really needed it, so it was good we could get them some,” Gehl said.

The atmosphere at the company has been positive, Gehl said, with the employees chipping in wherever and whenever they are needed.

“Everybody’s been great,” he said. “No one has complained and they are all here when we need them. We very definitely have a quarantine atmosphere here and thankfully, we have access to hand sanitizer and being in the food industry, we have access to a lot of hand washing sinks. Thankfully we have not had anyone get sick here.”

The Waterford Stillhouse distillery’s first product is hand sanitizer. The distillery is set to open this summer, but began producing hand sanitizer in April to help fight the coronavirus.

Distillery’s first product is hand sanitizer

Gehl said Contract Comestibles switching on the fly to bottle hand sanitizer wasn’t as interesting as a small-town, local distillery switching gears for it.

“They had a lot more to do,” he said.

One such distillery recently switched over to produce hand sanitizer. The Waterford Stillhouse, which recently received its federal license and isn’t even open, is producing hand sanitizer.

“We’re doing this for the community because we can. We want to provide our friends and neighbors with something they really need,” owner Tammie Begota said.

Setting up to bottle hand sanitizer required some work.

“We had to purchase some additional equipment and most of it has arrived,” Begota said. “Our first round of the product will be focused on bottling it in bulk in 1 gallon jugs.”

Begota, who owns the distillery with her husband, Brandon Begota, said their hand sanitizer is 80% alcohol and they are actively looking for retail outlets for the product.

Gallon jugs of the Waterford Stillhouse’s hand sanitizer are $37 each. Drive through pick up is available at the distillery, 228 E. Main St. in downtown Waterford.

For more information about the Waterford Stillhouse and when the hand sanitizer is available for pickup, find the distillery on Facebook.

For more information on Contract Comestibles, visit contractcomestibles.com.

 

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