Build Your City: The Race Against COVID | Guest Series by Compass Coffee
In the previous installment of our five-part series about building a stronger D.C. food ecosystem, we discussed how Compass Coffee turned a few bottles of artisanal small batch chocolate sauce into a full-scale syrup operation. Now, we’re going to take a look at how they flipped that into a hand sanitizer production facility and how Simple Sanitizer was born.
Walking into a convenience store on March 11th, 2020 was a disconcerting experience. Empty shelves. Hand sanitizer sold out. Cleaning products nowhere to be found. It was an early warning sign of just how serious the pandemic was about to become.
“It was eerie,” says Kuran Malhotra, Director of Corporate Development at Compass Coffee. “One day, I was sitting in our Georgetown café chatting with a few regulars, and the next, we had the tables and chairs stacked, along with signs reminding people to stay six feet apart.”
Compass cafés are heavily reliant on customers walking in, sitting down, and enjoying a cup of coffee. As the fear, uncertainty, and panic set in locally and nationally, Compass Coffee was hit hard. The team had to scramble to save their business.
As D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser put out a request for proposals for thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer for first responders to the COVID-19 pandemic, Compass got to work.
“One of our core values is Build Your City,” says Compass Coffee co-founder Harrison Suarez. “When we heard about the hand sanitizer shortage, the production team started doing research and development on what it would take to convert our syrup bottling lines to sanitizer production.”
The Compass team worked around the clock to build a new supply chain and to source the necessary ingredients: isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and glycerol.
Chas Newman, Compass Production Manager, took charge of sourcing ingredients, putting together a production plan, and reconfiguring the facility. By the end of that first week, he had already begun the process of importing ingredients from as far as South Korea.
“Building the supply chain was hard,” says Newman. “In March, nobody could commit to having anything or getting anything to D.C. It wasn’t clear if freight companies would be operating, and we weren’t sure what we’d be able to get and when.”
At the time, the demand for hand sanitizer and other cleaning materials was off the charts. The key ingredients, like isopropyl alcohol and aloe, were scarce. The lead time for plastic bottles went from days to months.
“Within a matter of weeks, we went from thinking about coffee, tea, and pastries, to tracking a shipment on a cargo tanker of isopropyl alcohol and figuring out how we’d even begin to price a product we’d never made before in a space we’d never been in,” Malhotra remarks. “It was challenging, exciting, and incredibly fulfilling to know that what we were doing was having a direct impact on people around D.C., in a time of need and stress.”
“Ask me three months ago, and making hand sanitizer would have never crossed my mind,” Malhotra says, when asked if he ever expected the situation COVID forced upon Compass. “It’s crazy how things have changed. But I think we’re doing a good job of meeting people’s needs, and giving back to the community that has given so much to us.”
So how’d they do it?
“The first step was figuring out what the different hurdles were, and breaking them down to divide and conquer,” Malhotra says. “Chas [Newman] onboarded new vendors, sourced ingredients, and derived and tested formulas. We had to work with the FDA and CDC standards, make drug labels, and ensure that we were putting out the best possible product. Michael reconfigured the bottling line itself, and made sure that we could fit the assortment of bottles we were able to find. I worked on building out all our costs and inventory, designing the systems we needed to plan production, and creating product and pricing information for our customers.”
From there, it was just a matter of putting it all together and bottling away. Over the 4-month production run, Compass bottled thousands of gallons of Simple Sanitizer and helped everyone from first responders to small businesses in a time of need.
“We’ve completely had to change our plans,” Malhotra notes. “We’ve really had to modify the way that we think about what we do and the role that we play in the community.”