Focus of Kalamazoo distillery shifts from hand-sanitizer back to cocktails

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series and our ongoing COVID-19 recovery coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.
A Kalamazoo business that received national attention for quickly finding a way to keep its workers working, partnering with other businesses to find creative solutions, and helping frontline healthcare workers in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak, is trying to reopen the door to its main line.
Green Door Distilling Co. is working its way back from the COVID-19 shutdown, during which it became a producer of hand sanitizer, to the production of alcoholic spirits.
“As a business owner, we have to figure out how to generate revenue and get back to building our brand,” says Josh Cook, founder of Green Door.
Green Door was founded about five years ago “to craft locally-made ‘adventurous’ spirits,” Cook says. It is a small-batch distillery that operates a cocktail and tasting room but serves no food. It produces whiskeys, vodka, coffee liqueurs, bourbon, and other spirits. It employs about 11 workers.
After the coronavirus struck and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all but life-essential businesses, and restaurants with pick-up and take-out service, to close, Cook and his staff brainstormed to find a way to keep things going. They realized they had the equipment to produce alcohol-based hand sanitizer, a product that has been in high demand as everyone from health care professionals to housewives try to protect themselves from the spread of the virus.

Cook says Green Door had to quickly learn from the FDA and the World Health Organization what regulatory hurdles it needed to clear and it had to find a market for any sanitizer it produced. The hand sanitizer it produced is about 80-percent alcohol.
The company quickly found customers, the largest of which has been Bronson Methodist Hospital. And since late March, it has produced about 20,000, four-ounce spray bottles of hand sanitizer. Of those, about 5,000 have been donated to senior centers, front-line healthcare workers, individuals, and others who expressed a need.
“Our goal wasn’t to start some giant, profitable endeavor,” Cook says. “It was what can we do to support one another during this pandemic and crisis in our community. That meant selling some and donating some as well.”
The goal was to provide Green Door’s workers with enough hours to make up for the revenue they would otherwise lose.
“We had a number in mind,” Cook says, speaking of hand-sanitizer sales. “Luckily, we were able to achieve that for March, April, and May. And keep 75 percent of our team working on hand sanitizer.”
But demand for hand sanitizers has waned since large producers and other temporary producers appear to have caught up with demand.
“We plateaued in May and have certainly seen the demand disappear,” Cook says. “And other retailers have caught up as well as the large manufacturers. We definitely need to get back to normal, building our brand, and interacting with customers.”
Cook says one of the defining factors in producing the hand sanitizer has been partnering with the Damn Handsome Grooming Co., a 7-year-old producer of soap, aftershave, men's skincare, beard oil, candles, and other products. Its co-founder, Jarrett Blackmon, a friend of Cook for about five years, helped design the packaging for the sanitizer and helped find the packaging resources Green Door needed from among thousands of possibilities.

 Cook and Blackmon were interviewed during a business segment of Fox News in late March for quickly and creatively pivoting to keep Green Door going, and for basically launching a start-up business in less than two weeks.
Damn Handsome, which works with craft brewers to re-purpose their brewed ingredients into environmentally sustainable products, is very familiar with small packaging. Green Door also partnered with One-Way Products, Allegra Printing, and LISC Kalamazoo for some of the financing, knowledge, and materials it needed.
“It’s certainly a challenging time and the only way we and other businesses are going to make it through this is by pivoting and by developing partnerships with other small businesses to elevate each other in a sense,” Cook says.
Before the statewide shutdown of many businesses to limit the spread of COVID-19, the business was going well for Green Door, Cook says.
“We’re outgrowing our space here in Kalamazoo,” he says of his 429 E. North St. location. And he and his staff were wrestling with state regulations that prevent them from making direct shipments to buyers. Michigan allows breweries to self-distribute and it allows wineries to distribute products directly to customers. But distillers are required to have customers come to their location, Cook says.
During the shutdown, Green Door has been able to sell spirits by having customers place orders by phone, then come to the business to pick them up – take-out style. As it reopens, the business is starting with no-touch, outdoor service only, three days a week. It will be open from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday.
“If it goes well, we’ll definitely add hours,” Cook says.
He says current state guidelines require restaurants to hold their indoor occupancy to no more than 50 percent of their fire code capacity. The distillery’s normal indoor capacity is 99 people. It is starting in the regulation-free outdoors, for the time being, to avoid any complications. It is expanding the seating capacity of the greenspace just outside its location from about 25 to about 45.
Tables are being placed more than six feet apart for proper social distancing and customers will start by placing orders at a pick-up counter where they can return to collect their orders when they are ready.
“We’re going to do it like a pick-up counter,” Cook says, for no-touch service. It will have a credit-card swiper and a staff member to take orders. Cocktails will be made in disposable containers. Customers will be asked to wear face coverings and asked to sanitize their hands.
“We’ll swipe their cards and sanitize the card before we hand it back,” Cook says. “You pick your table and wait until your order’s ready.”
He says he worries that is a big change from the homey, comfortable feeling inside the distillery.

“It’s certainly going to change the experience,” he says. “Our staff prides themselves on interviewing customers to provide what they want and will enjoy. People will come to a bar and a distillery to banter, to learn about spirits. We’re trying to innovate to learn how we can replace that (feeling). But it’s certainly been a challenge.”
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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.