COVID-19 is changing the way American manufacturers do business

From the rye whiskey maker who switched to hand sanitizer, to the leather baby shoe maker that pivoted to cotton face mask, some Lehigh Valley manufacturers deemed non-essential by Gov. Tom Wolf in March, converted production lines to keep workers employed, and discovered innovative product solutions. 

It also got many thinking about moving their supply chains closer to home.

“As we continued to build up [our] the supply chain to meet that demand, it became apparent the [larger] supply chain was broken. Plastic bottles come from China, which was locked down in the middle of March,” said Chad Butters, founder and CEO Eight Oaks Farm Distillery in New Tripoli, which began making hand sanitizer in March. 

Local water producers stepped up and donated empty bottles to Eight Oaks to meet their bottling supply gap for hand sanitizer for emergency responders and health care organizations. At the core of Eight Oaks mission was how to best serve the local community, he said. Without automation, Eight Oaks uses two production lines to hand bottle its hand sanitizer, using staggered shifts and maintaining social distancing requirements.

“The demand was a complete shock to me,” Butters said. “We had calls from hospitals, first responders, the US Post office and Department of Defense, among others. I had no idea there was this much demand.”

While Eight Oaks slowly returns to liquor production, its hand sanitizer operation remains strong. 

Liquor sales are open for online orders and curbside pickup, as well as locations at farmers markets like Easton Public Market, Allentown Farmers Market and Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

Eight Oaks currently serves three market channels for hand sanitizer: Non-profit emergency management agencies in its seven surrounding counties, businesses that can buy in bulk, and online consumer sales through its website. For now, the company has no plans to stop producing its hand sanitizer.

“We are no longer looking at a calendar or a clock to make decisions,” Butters said. “This is all based off the reality on the ground…we’re taking incremental approaches based upon what we see today.”

Audrey Zimmerman is a fourth generation shoemaker in Orwigsburg, Schuylkill County. Founded in 1888, Zimmerman Shoes LLC, which is owned by KepnerScott Shoe Company, makes hand-sewn leather baby and children’s shoes. Now they make 100 percent cotton face masks, too.

The company was part of the non-essential shutdown order March 19, and wanted to find a way to keep working and contribute to the health and safety effort during Covid-19.p“This is the first time in 132 years our doors had been closed,” Zimmerman said. 

Since skilled seamstresses were already employed – and many could work from home — Zimmerman and her head seamstress created patterns in answer to the call for personal protective equipment. “My dad and I went back to the drawing board,” she said. “We studied how to do N95 [masks], but that wasn’t an option.” 

After receiving a waiver early in the pandemic, the company retooled the business to make cloth face masks. 

Zimmerman discovered making face masks wasn’t much different than baby shoes because the team was able to create a design that would use their cutting machines and dies.

At Zimmerman Shoes LLC, an employee sews a face mask on machines normally used to make shoes. PHOTO/SUBMITTED –

As demand skyrocketed they’ve created different fits and patterns, adding child-sized masks to the line-up.

“We began doing XL masks for men with beards and larger individuals, too,” she said.

The company donates PPE to health care services and offers consumer sales at kepnerscott.com. 

Zimmerman sources fabric in Pennsylvania for its cotton face masks, and the threads are sourced in the United States.

Rethinking supply chains

According to Richard Hobbs, president and CEO of Manufacturers Resource Center in Fogelsville, there is significant talk about “nearshoring and reshoring” in the manufacturing sector since the Covid-19 outbreak. 

“I think many manufacturers are thinking about how to source locally because no one likes to be held hostage – and many felt we were being held hostage by overseas supply chains,” he said.

Nearshoring is the process of bringing materials sourced overseas closer, while reshoring is the process of returning production sources back to a business’s country of origin.

“Reshoring supply chains is something a lot of people are thinking about –everyone I talk to is talking about it,” Hobbs said. “I can’t picture anyone being comfortable about it all coming from some foreign place…not only can you bring it back from international supply chains, but bring it back to a Pennsylvania supply chain.”

While the enthusiasm is there not everything can be made – or made competitively – in the commonwealth. Hobbs said product cost along with cost of ownership could become more important because “decisions do get made on the dollars.”

“It is a business and timing decision… and times are changing day-by-day,” Hobbs said.

Within the five counties in the Manufacturing Resource Center coverage footprint, about 85 percent have been declared essential and have been allowed to remain open, Hobbs said. 

“Even [among] those that have stayed open, there are many stories that aren’t so good. A lot have had supply issues, due to delays or unavailability,” he said.

Finding workers

Others have had worker shortages, due to those caring for ill family members, or being unable to work staggered shifts.

Initially, Hobbs said, disarray in the response [for PPE and other products] and a lack of information frustrated and disappointed many producers who wanted to help but weren’t sure how.  

About a month ago the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Call to Action Portal was launched by the state, creating a hub to help match up manufacturers with gear and equipment users, such as ventilators and parts for them. The portal stream-lined the process. 

“There was a lot of confusion…companies were scrambling early on, and everyone was trying to find something to do. They wanted to help and just couldn’t get there,” he said.

Wardog Spirits the latest distiller to switch to hand sanitizer production

Wardog Spirits, a distillery at Black River Farms Vineyard & Winery in Lower Saucon Township, is the latest to shift from distilling spirits to producing hand sanitizer.

Kris and Drew Warner and Kristen Buczynski deliver a batch of Wardog hand sanitizer. PHOTO/SUBMITTED 

Joining Bethlehem’s Social Still and Lynn Township’s Eight Oaks Distillery, Wardog’s hand sanitizer will be donated to local emergency workers and healthcare personnel.

Wardog Spirits converted their mash barrels to neutral spirits, distilling at 190 proof, to make a hand sanitizer that is 80% alcohol, which complies with the World Health Organization’s recommendations. The alcohol is then combined with glycerin and hydrogen-peroxide, bottled and labeled.

Kris Warner, co-owner of the distillery with her husband Andy, and a member of the Board of Trustees for St. Luke’s University Health Network, said it was a natural choice for her that the early shipments went to various St. Luke’s facilities.

“Wardog Spirits and Black River Farms are very pleased to shift distillery production to make high alcohol hand sanitizer for our first responders and medical professionals in our community,” said Warner, “We are all in this together.”

Black River Farms’ sanitizers are packaged in three sizes – 2-ounce bottles, 4-ounce bottles and 64-ounce pump bottles that can be refilled as needed.

“We will keep one of the Wardog stills running continuously to continue to support regional healthcare heroes and those in need,” Warner said.

Distiller says beer donations can help with COVID-19 fight

Christmas City Spirits is one of the local distillers currently making hand sanitizer. PHOTO/SUBMITTED –

Got beer?

If you have some brew your willing to spare – particularly if you’re a local brewery – the folks at Christmas City Spirits in Bethlehem are hoping you’ll donated it to them to help with their effort to make hand sanitizer for area health care and emergency services providers.

Brett Biggs, owner of the distillery, said his company – like many in the region – have switched from making whiskeys, gins and vodkas to making hand sanitizers to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“There is so much demand for sanitizer that Christmas City Spirits can’t keep up on its own,” Biggs said.

But why, beer?

“Beer has alcohol in it,” Biggs explained. “We can take that beer and distill it into what we need to make the hand sanitizer.”

Making whiskey actually starts with making a beer-like product, which is then distilled to create whiskey. The distillation process to turn the beer into alcohol for hand sanitizer is relatively similar, he said.

So far, Biggs said Christmas City has received donations from a number of home brewers who have been donating five and 6 gallon batches of beer, but he is hoping some larger local microbrewers may have some lager laying about, or some pilsner they’re willing to part with to help the cause.

“Right now we are able to pick up as much as a couple hundred gallons at a time,” he said.

Taste isn’t a factor, so any brewer with a bad batch can put that beer to good use by donating. Christmas City has donated to more than 27 gallons of hand sanitizer to St. Luke’s University Health Network. Colonial Regional Police Department, and the Hanover Township Volunteer Fire Company.

Brewers with donations can contact Biggs by email at [email protected].

If Christmas City receives more donations than it can process on its own, the brew will be shared with other local distilleries making hand sanitizer.

Hand sanitizer replaces spirits for local distillers

Pocono Brewing Co. is helping Silverback Distillery can hand sanitizer to distribute to nonprofits in need. PHOTO/SUBMITTED –


There is a saying that necessity is the mother of invention, but for a family-run micro-distillery in East Stroudsburg, motherhood was the necessity.

Abby Riggleman, manages the East Stroudsburg facility for Silverback Distillery, while her sister manages a second distillery in Virginia. Both are pregnant. Neither could find hand sanitizer as stocks at area grocery stores and pharmacies became quickly depleted by the spread of COVID-19.

“This happened so we would both be protected,” said Riggleman.

Already making the main ingredient – alcohol – they decided they would make their own hand sanitizer. Plus, they had already heard of other micro-distilleries in Pennsylvania doing it, including Eight Oaks Distillery in New Tripoli.

“Then we heard that Monroe County Meals on Wheels was in need of hand sanitizer,” she said.

Silverback Sani is replacing Silverback Distillery’s normal spirits. PHOTO/SUBMITTED –

They decided to ramp up production of their handmade hand sanitizer so they could help that organization and any others that’s might need the product, and put out word that they’d donate their hand sanitizer to nonprofits that needed it.

“We thought we’d get a few responses,” she said.

Currently, they have a list of more than 100 organizations seeking their help.

“This has blown up,” she said. “People are in desperate need. It’s insane.”

Eight Oaks saw a similar response. In Facebook post, the distillery said it began donating hand sanitizer to the public on Friday, and while they expected a large response, it became even larger than expected and they had to stop in-person donations.

“Our first priority is the safety of our crew and community, and especially given the health state the country is in, and we don’t think it’s socially responsible to continue getting it out in person,” the distiller said.

Eight Oaks is looking at better ways to get the product where it’s needed and is still making donations to organizations.

At Silverback, Riggleman said one of the biggest hurdles they’ve had to overcome is getting all of the supplies they need.

While they had the alcohol, coming up with other ingredients, like hydrogen peroxide, and even bottles and labels for hand sanitizer proved to be a bit more of a challenge, and expensive.

They’ve had some help from other businesses.

When they couldn’t get enough small bottles for the hand sanitizer, Pocono Brewing Co. offered to can it for them so it could be distributed to organizations in need that can then transfer the sanitizer into their own bottles.

The distillery started a Go Fund Me page to ask for donations to help pay for the materials they needed to get the product to those organizations that need it the most. Those looking to help can also email her directly at [email protected]

And yes, Riggleman said her family are still concerned about making payroll as it stops production of its spirits, but that isn’t her first priority now. She knows they will eventually be able to go back to making spirits and in the meantime they have existing stock to sell online.

“Though closing our tasting room did hurt us,”’ she said.

Also, once they get the hand sanitizer to the organizations in need, she said they will also be able to start making bottles to sell to the public. That will hopefully help them earn some money. But that, she said, is for later.

“We’re at pinpoint focus right now trying to get it where it’s most needed,” she said. “We’re going to figure it out. It’s worth it if it saves a life.”


$19 for a bottle of hand sanitizer? Pa. Attorney General going after price gougers

A suburban Philadelphia store tried to sell a $2 bottle of hand sanitizer for $19. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES –

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said today that his office has now received more than 1,000 tips reporting price gouging.

As of today, the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General has received 1,171 reports, of which the Office has followed up with 45 verified complaints and dispensed 34 cease and desist letters and subpoenas.

For example his office was able to stop a suburban Philadelphia store from selling a $2 bottle of hand sanitizer for $19.

“I’m grateful to everyone in the Commonwealth for reporting their concerns to our Office,” said Shapiro. “During these uncertain times, taking advantage of consumers in need of cleaning supplies and paper products is not only outrageous, it’s illegal.”

Shapiro said his office is following up on every tip regarding price gouging reported. To make a tip, email the office at [email protected].