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From distillers to cannabis firms, Sonoma County businesses pivot to help fight coronavirus

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In an unprecedented public health crisis, Sarah and Josh Opatz wanted to help any way they could from their boutique distillery a short walk from the Healdsburg Square.

Not surprisingly, they had plenty of alcohol distillate in storage at their Young & Yonder distillery. There was also some glycerin, aloe and essential oils. They bought hydrogen peroxide. They had many small bottles typically used to fill spirits for hotel minibars.

In 24 hours, they had a new side business producing hand sanitizer to go along with their spirits line of six-times distilled vodka, 11-ingredient absinthe and five-grain bourbon. They gave away bottles on Saturday with at least 100 people showing up at their tasting room for to-go pickups. Some of them recently were let go from jobs as a result of the tanking economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The community has been incredible. Most people who came in also picked up a bottle or two of spirits,” said Sarah Opatz, who started Young and Yonder with her husband in 2013 in Cloverdale and moved to Healdsburg four years later. “It’s kept our business alive and growing. ... We just wanted everybody to stay clean; we had the supply and ingredients.”

The quick innovative pivot by the Opatzes is being replicated among a few other businesses in Sonoma County that also are rushing to help local medical professionals and residents in an effort to curb the coronavirus.

Like the hardscrabble pioneers who founded what is still today a largely agricultural community, these local entrepreneurs are trying to be resourceful even while the business environment around them has rapidly changed as a result of the pandemic and subsequent county shutdown of all but essential commerce.

On Tuesday, cannabis processor CannaCraft announced it’s making 5,000 1-ounce tubes of hand sanitizer to be donated to nonprofits, customers, employees and essential businesses. Kai’s Virgin Vapor, a Santa Rosa producer of vaping cartridges, also has produced its own organic hand sanitizer that it’s selling for $3.99 in single-ounce bottles on its website.

The business ingenuity has gone beyond hand sanitizer. At Santa Rosa textile maker TekTailor, chief executive Steffen Kuehr is trying to expand the product line of police protective gear and recycled messenger bags to make reusable surgical masks for local hospitals.

“I see an opportunity here to bring some new revenue source, at the same time helping out some of our facilities,” Kuehr said. “The idea is to use a local factory to react to local demand.”

Like Young & Yonder, Prohibition Spirits had to shut its tasting room last week at Cornerstone Sonoma. Even before closing, Fred Groth, the co-owner, decided to start production of hand sanitizer given the relative ease for his distillery to make it. But he wanted it to be the exact opposite of that high-octane Purell smell. Instead, he created different smells suited for a high-end cocktail bar such as key lime margarita, the old fashioned and pina colada. Each sells for $6 per 2-ounce spray.

“We wanted to make them like things you want to drink,” Groth said. “That’s a happy smell for sure.”

The product sold well before his tasting room closed and it’s become a popular seller on Prohibition’s website. Word spread quickly about the unique product. One Bay Area emergency services department employee drove over to Sonoma to pick up a batch because of the scarcity of the hand-sanitizing products on retail shelves.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

For CannaCraft, the decision to produce hand sanitizer also was a simple one because the Santa Rosa-based cannabis firm had sufficient space and staffing even with its limited workforce. And it’s using its distribution business, Kind House Distribution, to deliver the bottles later this week.

“When we started hearing reports of a shortage in hand sanitizer, we knew that we could be of assistance without negatively impacting our employees or our operations,” CannaCraft CEO Jim Hourigan said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the hand sanitizer experiment at Young & Yonder has worked so well the distillery is now trying to upgrade the formula so it could contain more than 70% alcohol to meet standards established by the Food and Drug Administration. That would allow the distillery to be able to distribute to local hospitals, Sarah Opatz said.

Their new side hustle, which they are doing pro bono, has helped the couple’s spirits business along with a key recent move by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to allow some online sales of its bottles directly to consumers, she said. That’s important since more than 50% of Young & Yonder’s revenue was derived from its tasting room sales.

“My husband and I deal with the stresses day in and day out. ... We still think we can be greatly affected by this” virus-induced economic crunch caused by the closures of wine tasting rooms, restaurants and bars where their alcoholic beverages are served.

“We are trying to pivot and find ways to keep things going. The crazy thing is we did the sanitizer because we know there is a need, thinking maybe this will help keep our business on the top of the minds for people,” she said. “We never expected the bottle sales that we saw on Saturday.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you're experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at coronavirus@pressdemocrat.com.

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