When the impact of the coronavirus pandemic began to hit home in Ford County, Kansas, an electric cooperative and a whiskey distillery teamed up to fill an urgent need for hand cleanser amid a nationwide shortage.
“The main ingredient in hand cleanser is alcohol, and Boot Hill Distillery was in a prime position with the equipment and ingredients to make it,” said Jerri Whitley, vice president of communications for Dodge City-based Victory Electric Cooperative. “When they asked for a sponsorship partner, we were in a position to respond quickly. We also had the manpower, the location and the event expertise to get the product to people who need it.”
Co-op staffers were dispatched to the distillery to help brew hand cleanser and fill, label and pack 4-ounce bottles for distribution.
“With the nationwide shortage of disinfectants, cleaning products, toilet paper and many other items, many of our members were desperately searching for hand sanitizer to protect themselves,” said Shane Laws, CEO of Victory EC. “We knew we wanted to do something to help our members and local communities.”
Laws spent a Saturday working on the bottling line and asked Whitley to organize an event to get the free product into the hands of co-op members and other Kansans.
Whitley quickly put together a plan for drive-up distribution at the co-op’s headquarters and the distillery. “I wrote and distributed a press release and used every social media trick I knew to quickly get the word out about the event the next day,” she said. “Luckily, we had a lot of support from local organizations and individuals who shared and promoted it on their pages as well.”
More than 5,000 bottles were distributed from the two locations within a few hours, and the Ford County Sheriff’s Office had deputies on hand to help with distribution and traffic control.
“We challenged our businesses to be innovative during this time and this project exceeded our expectations. The amount of community support that was put into making this happen is amazing,” said Anna Bierken, president and CEO of the Dodge City Area Chamber of Commerce. “It is projects like this that show the true character of our community.”
Ten other distribution events have been held or planned for Dodge City and other communities served by Victory EC. Whitley has been able to enlist community partners in outlying areas to help with the events, and consumer-members are grateful.
“The Boot Hill Distillery and Victory Electric Cooperative have always been pillars of the community, giving back where they can,” said Christina Haselhorst, a Victory EC member.
“Not only did they provide this wonderful sanitizer for our citizens, but there were countless members volunteering their time to hand out the bottles efficiently, quickly, safely, and with welcoming smiles.”
With no slowdown in demand, Boot Hill Distillery, a co-op commercial account since it launched in 2014, is embracing the fact that it’s becoming known as a regional source for hand cleanser.
“Our original goal was 2,500 bottles. Within less than a day we had increased our goal to 15,000 4-ounce bottles and are now set up to produce over 40,000 4-ounce bottles and 240-gallon jugs,” said Hayes Kelman, the distillery’s owner.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has cleared distillers to produce cleaning products, but the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t provided guidance for distillers on hand sanitizer formulas. Kelman has been following guidance from the World Health Organization for mixing ethanol, hydrogen peroxide and other ingredients to produce the cleaner.
Grateful Kansans have been kicking in cash to help keep the hand cleanser flowing, and shipments are in progress to other areas of the state.
“We have prioritized medical, first responders, nursing homes, and then others that have no chance to wash their hands such as truck drivers and delivery drivers,” said Kelman. “Our ultimate goal is to get the product into as many hands as possible.”
Derrill Holly is a staff writer at NRECA.
See NRECA’s COVID-19 hub on cooperative.com for key resources for co-ops, including guidance on business continuity planning and communication, as well as event schedule changes.