How suburban businesses are adapting to help in the COVID-19 battle
In what seems like the blink of an eye, our lives and businesses have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the numbers of sick and dying climbed exponentially over the past month, life as we know it ceased to exist. The shelter at home order meant most of us are either working remotely, or not working at all. Businesses that are deemed "non essential" are shuttered, and those that are essential are in many cases operating at limited capacity. Additional precautions taken to keep workers safe have also meant adjustments to the workflow norm.
Even when the pandemic ends and we're allowed to resume life as we know it, it could still be a long time before business and the economy return to normal -- or if a "new normal' will arise from the lessons learned fro our experience.
Yet, amid the gloom, there are stories of suburban businesses stepping up to take action to help in the fight of the COVID-19 virus, as well as help one another in the battle.
Here are some of their stories.
From spirits to santizer
After first being silenced by coronavirus precautions, the still at Copper Fiddle Distillery in Lake Zurich roared back to life. But instead of producing gin or vodka, owner Andrew Macker and his team were putting the machine to work making sanitizer to help first responders stay safe during the pandemic. The sanitzers was given to local police and fire departments.
The project started after a call from state Sen. Dan McConchie, a Hawthorn Woods Republican. McConchie said he'd heard from local mayors that their police and fire departments were running low on sanitizer. Even though most people are asked to remain inside, first responders must be available to help and they need to use sanitizer on their hands and shared equipment, McConchie said.
Macker immediately agreed to help.
Usually it takes about a week to make a batch of sanitizer, Macker said, but for the first batch, his team used about 45 cases of unsold bottles of rum to speed up the process.
"They are at 80 proof and we have to get them up to 140 to 160 proof," Macker said. "We just filled the still and fired it up."
It took less than a day to produce the first batch in mid-March. Another bacth was to be ready for first responders around March 30.
Macker said regular sales have pretty much dried up since coronavirus fears shut down their taproom and others like it in the state.
- Doug T. Graham
A little more than a year ago, Mount Prospect granted approval for two Eagle Scouts to open the village's first distillery, dubbed Two Eagles Distillery, at 1852 S. Elmhurst Road.
But Two Eagles had to pivot in response to the coronavirus just as the business was getting poised to begin self-distribution. Now the distillery, as others, is devoting its energies to producing hand sanitizers.
"We had a bunch of vodka sitting here," said Operations Manager Jesse Zien, one of the two Eagle Scouts.
In early March, however, Zien and his partner, Master Distiller Matthew Georgacakis-Nurre of Mount Prospect, sat down and decided to hold off on bottling it.
"We kind of had a feeling that there might be a need for hand sanitizer. We knew that we could make it," Zien said.
Things then began falling into place. The federal government gave the go-ahead to manufacture the product, but only under a specific recipe calling for such ingredients as glycerin, isopropyl alcohol and hydrogen peroxide in addition to the high-proof spirits.
The company started a GoFundMe page and within hours, $2,000 in donations poured in. As of Saturday, the tally had reached $18,000.
Now, the company is rolling out four-ounce bottles and giving it away to first-responders, as well as restaurants, public works facilities and anyone performing essential services. Zien said gallon bottles are on order.
The manufacturing crew includes the two partners, plus their legal counsel, Agostino Filippone, who also sits on Mount Prospect's planning and zoning commission.
"We are donating all our time to do this and we are making hand sanitizers as fast as we can," Zien said. "Everyone is pitching in. Many hands make light work."
- Steve Zalusky
The need for speed
Skokie-based start up company Azul is turning up its newest technology to help meet the demand for personal protection equipment for health care workers dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 3-D printing firm has started using its High-Area Rapid Printer to produce medical face shields at a rate of 1,000 per day, according to company co-founder and Chief Technical Officer David Walker.
"Our technology is like nothing else in the marketplace and we're committed to using it for this essential cause," Walker said. "By rapidly printing face shields and potentially other critical components, we're ready to take on this fight to slow the impact of coronavirus."
Azul unveiled the HARP 3-D printing device last fall. The 13-foot-tall printer with a 2½-square-foot print bed can print a record half yard in an hour, according to the company. But with the demand for face shields becoming so great, company officials decided to speed up development of new printers while using its prototype printer to produce face shields in the short term. Officials said they expect to reach 20,000 shields per week within the next few months.
To meet its immediate goal of 1,000 per day on the original printer, Azul 3-D is running the printer 24/7. Volunteer team members work in six-hour shifts to keep the production cycle going
Azul 3-D has partnered with a local manufacturing company to provide the laser-cut clear plastic shields, while another partner sanitizes and packages face shield components into kits that will be supplied to area hospitals.
All face shields can be washed and reused.
What's good for GM
Two tech companies in Arlington Heights and Bartlett are among those in the suburbs contributing their expertise to General Motors' stepped-up efforts to manufacture ventilators on its repurposed assembly lines.
Faspro Techologies Inc. in Arlington Heights is making a particular part for the ventilators, while Assurance Technologies Inc. in Bartlett has provided machines and engineers to measure the precision of the newly made devices.
Lake Barrington resident Chuck Drews, co-founder of Faspro Technologies, said the precision sheet-metal fabricator has been called upon to make the fan bracket guards for a type of Ventec Life Systems ventilator, the production of which has been prioritized by the respiratory virus outbreak.
The impact on the company has been sudden and significant. Not only has it had to increase its capital outlay and take a bigger gamble than usual on being paid on time, but the work for other clients -- some of whom are seeing a slowdown from the crisis -- had to be shuffled around without being abandoned, Drews said.
It's been only a week since Assurance Technologies in Bartlett got a call about the immediate need for a particular kind of measuring equipment for the new ventilators, Vice President of Operations Ian Main of South Elgin said.
While such devices can potentially take three to six months to build for a new client, the company just happened to have two completed ones in its warehouse. No sooner had Main confirmed this on the phone than he was told a semi truck from Motion Industries in Kokomo, Indiana was on its way to pick them up.
While that truck was still on its way to Kokomo, the Bartlett company was called again by GM wanting a third machine. There was sufficient demo equipment in the lab to put one together once computers and monitors from ConsultNet Inc. in St. Charles could be added.
Both Drews and Main said area residents shouldn't be surprised by how much of the know-how for these needs is right here. The Northwest suburbs boasts the largest concentration of such specialized manufacturing in the world, Drews said.
Keeping them fed
Kris Schoenberger, the owner of BBQ'd Productions in Lake Zurich and Third Lake, has a goal to give 10,000 meals to first responders and medical personnel on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.
To do that, he's harnessed the power of the Lake County community and changed his business.
In just over a week, Schoenberger has personally delivered to police stations, fire departments, doctors offices and hospitals some 1,500 meals purchased by members of the local community.
"We just want to put smiles on the faces of the people who are helping us," he said. "If we continue to help them, they'll keep being able to help us."
Schoenberger and his team have created new menu items - a $6 sandwich and a $12 platter - that local residents can buy and donate through the restaurant's website, wegrillitall.com/store/category/corona-virus-relief.
Each nets the company a few cents in profits per sale, he said, while he tries to keep his business alive.
"The price pays for the cost of the food, for the employee to work and for us to keep the lights on," he said. "If we can stay afloat, pay the bills we need to pay, we'll worry about making money later."
BBQ'd Productions restaurants still have regular menu available for take out and delivery.
Schoenberger is quick to give credit to the community members who have paid for the meals.
He said he was able to reach the community largely through Facebook, where he occasionally posts pictures of the deliveries. Donated orders have grown from around 100 to 150 to around 400 to 600 in recent days.
- Doug T. Graham
Getting the message out
Kara Lineal, president and CMO of Plum Grove Inc. in Hoffman Estates, saw the writing on the wall when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact local businesses.
"There are so many businesses that had to adapt to the changing situation overnight," Lineal said. "When you watch the news, you can see companies from drive-through testing facilities to grocery stores and restaurants with makeshift signs written on crumpled paper and drawn with a marker."
Those handwritten signs prompted the printing services company to develop a line of COVID-19 signage that could be downloaded and printed from home, or custom ordered and delivered quickly.
Its line of coronavirus signs and poster art were developed for workplaces to promote safety protocols and comply with new COVID-19 legislation. Signs include "Social Distancing" and "Wash Your Hands" graphics, as well as as "Takeout Only" or "Free Delivery" services. All of it is free to download for print and distribution, Lineal said.
Plum Grove's trade show and promotional products divisions were hit bu the cancellation of conferences, events and travel, Lineal said.
"In an effort to keep our production team working, we shifted the focus to creating new safety signs and hand washing posters for our own shop," she added.
Office staff is working remotely, and production teams transitioned from one-day shift to three different shifts with no overlap.
"Projects that used to move through the shop during the day now move throughout the shop around the clock," Lineal said. "We spread out the workload over 24 hours to reduce our exposure and stop the spread of the coronavirus.
"Our coronavirus support efforts have helped our business by keeping our team busy, productive, and hopeful. -Richard Klicki