Coronavirus: South Bay distilleries working to ease sanitizer shortage
10th Street Distillery in San Jose is producing hand sanitizer to ease the shortage for first responders, health care workers and the city as a whole. Photo courtesy of Virag Saksena.

    When shortages of cleaning supplies and protective equipment were first announced across Silicon Valley in response to the coronavirus, San Jose distiller Virag Saksena realized he already had all the tools to help.

    The CEO of the 10th St. Distillery in San Jose halted production of his award-winning whiskey two weeks ago and pivoted to producing an even higher proof product: Hand sanitizer.

    “There are people right now who are out there putting themselves at risk, every single day for others,” Saksena said. “What can we do to help them out?”

    As the impact of COVID-19 in Santa Clara County continues to escalate – with nearly 650 cases and 25 deaths as of Sunday – medical professionals and emergency responders have put out calls to the community for more supplies to effectively treat residents and prevent further spread.

    Saksena started researching and tweaking his formula to get effective sanitizer ready for use even before the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and the Food and Drug Administration gave distilleries the green light for this kind of work. But with production now underway, 10th St. Distillery, which is anchored near the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, isn’t making any more whiskey at all.

    Saksena said he hasn’t yet taken the time to consider the financial toll of this work, even while small business relief programs, including Silicon Valley Strong and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Small Business Relief Fund, were created to help ease the financial strain businesses are facing.

    “We’re looking at the bigger picture and eventually good things are going to come out of this,” said Saksena, adding that he’s ready to swallow expenses if recipients can’t cover costs, while others have offered donations to help. “We’re not trying to cover rent or energy costs or any operations. Basically for us, that’s what it is.”

    Instead, he’s currently focused on getting his hand sanitizer into the hands of people who need it most for “as long as it takes.” He credited San Jose leaders – especially Councilmember Raul Peralez and Mayor Sam Liccardo’s offices – in helping get the ball rolling.

    The city is set to start collecting 55-gallon drums of the sanitizer Monday, which will first be distributed to high-need groups like local hospitals, first responders and city-run facilities. For scale, one 55-gallon drum could fill more than 2,300 3-ounce travel sized bottles of sanitizer.

    San Jose’s 10th St. Distillery is producing hand sanitizer to help fill the shortage due to coronavirus. Photo courtesy of Virag Saksena.

    San Jose Deputy City Manager Kim Walesh said the city is coordinating logistics of demand, transportation and distribution. She said their years-long partnership with the distillery streamlined this whole process, after helping Saksena get his business started in 2017.

    “We appreciate Virag instantly seeing this opportunity and really turning on a dime,” said Walesh, who works in the city’s Emergency Operations Center. “The city is having to be sort of scrappy, creative and assertive to get the materials and equipment that we need to support the community through this emergency. This is an example of a new, small company that, in partnership with the city, saw the opportunity to transform its production to something that was vitally needed.”

    She attributes this kind of collaboration to the entrepreneurial spirit of San Jose and the entire Silicon Valley, which can quickly reconfigure assets, see gaps, and fill needs.

    Proof of the area’s entrepreneurial spirit: Saksena’s not the only one helping meet the demands of sanitizer in Santa Clara County. Dan Gordon, brewmaster and co-founder of Gordon Biersch Brewing Company, has also been busy finalizing sanitizer production plans.

    With the help of downtown San Jose developer Gary Dillabough and Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Gordon said they were able to leverage their own social network to secure hard-to-find ingredients and the necessary facilities.

    “There are very few ingredients, a lot of moving parts and a lot of people that are doing everything they can to make San Jose clean,” Gordon said.

    Originally, the sanitizer was also going to be made in-house at Gordon Biersch, but without wanting to waste time relicensing his brewery, the group reached out to Fairfield-based Frank-Lin Distillers, which was originally located in San Jose. There, 7-ounce and 1.75-liter plastic bottles will be filled with a sprayable sanitizer, which can universally be used on surfaces like doorknobs and keyboards, as well as hands.

    The goal is to make around 10,000 gallons after estimates indicated that around 4,500 gallons – the volume of a gas tanker truck – will be needed in the next month. Production is tentatively scheduled to start early this week.

    Gordon will be distributing the sanitizer out of his brewery, initially to first responders, and then to other retailers and businesses in need – including his own brewery – below the currently price-gauged rates available. But he pushes off any praise, saying that partners like Frank-Lin Distillers, Dillabough and Guardino are the ones who deserve the acclaim.

    “For me, it was an automatic civic duty,” Gordon said. “But I really don’t deserve any credit. I’m just part of the cog in the system.”

    Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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