Amazon call changes it all: Distillery poised for cuts now growing

Kent County

KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — A Kentwood distillery on the brink of cutting staff is now adding a second business, thanks to a cold call from Amazon.

Like many Michigan businesses, Wise Men Distillery took a hit in sales when state orders forced its bar to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But the state also opened a door to a new venture for the distillery: producing hand sanitizer by temporarily easing licensing rules.

Manager Tom Borisch said he hadn’t thought of it until his phone rang. Brent Hagen, the assistant general manager of Amazon’s Gaines Township fulfillment center, was on the other line with a proposal to help his 3,000 Amazon employees.

“He said, ‘You guys make sanitizer? I was reading about another place down South, it’s a distillery making sanitizer. Have you guys thought about that?’” Borisch recounted.

“Tom was one of the first ones to respond back with a short answer of ‘No,’ but a long answer of, ‘We would love to help figure it out with you,’” said Hagen.

And for good reason.

“He said, ‘Man, listen: Before you came in here, before you called, I was Googling how to furlough associates… this is going to keep me busy for a pretty long period of time,’” Hagen recollected.

SANITIZER SWITCHUP

The employees Borisch was almost forced to cut are now taking on entirely new roles.

“I have bartenders bottling sanitizer, our head distiller is blending all this stuff, our IT guy is back there unboxing and labeling and running a fork truck. Yeah, there’s nobody doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s crazy, (but) they’re killing it. It’s great,” said Borisch.

(A still image taken from video provided by Wise Men Distillery shows an employee bottling hand sanitizer.)

He says it took two weeks to get the first drop of hand sanitizer into a jug — a process complicated by a squeezed supply chain.

“The entire world was sold out of one-gallon jugs. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. We ended up getting all of our one-gallon jugs and pumps and stuff like that from a guy down in Illinois that had over-ordered, accidentally by like 100,000 (jugs) for a product he had, so he had a warehouse full of stuff. And we put a post on Facebook saying, ‘We’re looking for one-gallon jugs,’ and he called us,” he said.

(A still image taken from video provided by Wise Men Distillery shows one of the distillery’s first shipments of hand sanitizer.)

$5K OFFER FOR THE ‘REALLY HURT’

As soon as production started, the orders started coming in. Hagen says other Amazon facilities heard about the agreement and asked for some hand sanitizer, bringing Amazon’s first order to 3,000 gallons.

“I think it really kind of hits home, the impact that individual ideas can make on a much grander scale,” Hagen said. “You know, when, when you think about what this hand sanitizer is doing just for Amazon… he is supporting six distribution centers located in four states that employ over 20,000 people in the Midwest. And he is making sure that by helping us get this, that we’re keeping them and in safe condition.”

Business is thriving for Wise Men Distillery. Borisch says his team of five people has already produced about 50,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, including the 2,000 gallons it’s donated to workers on the pandemic frontlines.

“If they walk in the door with a scrubs and a badge, we give it to them. They don’t pay. And we’ve had firetrucks show up here from all over the state. We’ve had police cars, anything. It’s been pretty cool,” he said, calling it the most rewarding part of this experience.

Now some employees of Wise Men Distillery are looking to help others hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. They’ve pooled together $5,000 to give to 10 people.

“A few of us got (stimulus) checks in the mail and we couldn’t quite reconcile that with ourselves,” Borisch explained. “We just wanted to make sure all the money went right to people that really needed it right now.”

Borisch says the emails the offer is generating have been “heart-wrenching,” from those still waiting on unemployment checks who’ve been forced to visit food pantries, to a family that split under the stress, with one spouse taking all their stimulus money and leaving the other with three children and bills.

“It’s sad. I mean, they’re really hurt,” said Borisch.

HERE TO STAY

(A Jan. 3, 2020, photo shows the storefront in Grand Rapids’ McKay Tower that will soon be home to Wise Men Distillery’s tasting room.)

Borisch says Wise Men Distillery is excited to go back to making spirits and opening a second tasting room in downtown Grand Rapids when the pandemic ends, but it won’t stop pumping out hand sanitizer. Armed with a three-year contract to produce 600,000 gallons of sanitizer for an unnamed client, the company has filed for state licensing to open TJZ Sanitizer Products selling Wise Men sanitizer.

Borisch says they’ve already hired a manager for the new company and they plan to hire four other workers, nearly doubling Wise Men’s current workforce.

“It never would’ve happened if (Hagen) hadn’t walked through the door,” said Borisch.

(An undated courtesy photo provided by Tom Borisch shows Wise Men Distillery’s packaged hand sanitizer.)

“To see him expand his business like this, buy this other warehouse, hasn’t taken any other loans, he’s buying machinery — I think it just really speaks to the resolve, creativity and the drive to do something great,” Hagen said.

For now, those interested in purchasing hand sanitizer at $21 per gallon or bottled spirits can visit Wise Men Distillery’s tasting room on Broadmoor Avenue just south of 44th Street SE.

TRACKING CORONAVIRUS

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