BAXTER — So much has changed in so little time.

“Our business was completely different 10 days ago,” said Ian Ulrich, sales and marketing director at The Teehive in Baxter. The screen printing and embroidery business was flourishing with 50 employees and looking at a very different future. Completed dance costumes and apparel hang alongside the manufacturing facility with tags moving in the spring air as a sign of a life upended just weeks ago. Thursday, April 2, at The Teehive, Ulrich said they realized the huge need for masks and protective equipment and they started producing them, including reusable masks with a pocket for a filter, thinking of the health care workers.

“What we found over time, everyday feels like a month right now, but as time kinda kept going on and on the general public was reaching out to us,” Ulrich said, noting big and small companies in a cross section of industries with essential employees saying they needed protection for their employees.

“So we kind of pivoted again and started creating as many as we possibly could as fast as we possibly could,” Ulrich said. “Currently our production is about 12,000 per week that we can create and that is between the masks and the gowns. … We continue to grow with it as the demand grows.”

Ian Ulrich, sales and marketing director at The Teehive, talks Thursday, April 2, about the rapid response the company had to make from creating garments to protective masks and gowns. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Ian Ulrich, sales and marketing director at The Teehive, talks Thursday, April 2, about the rapid response the company had to make from creating garments to protective masks and gowns. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Customers have reached out to them from California, Texas and Florida among other states.

“We feel very fortunate to have the flexibility to kind of pivot off what we typically would be doing and not only provide a really needed product for our community and our country but also provide some jobs and get some people back to work.”

The Teehive made custom apparel and grew from Steve and Cindy Clough of Clough Properties, who founded the business as an off-shoot to their thriving Just For Kix business as demand grew for custom apparel. Ulrich said there were 50 employees working in the facility when the coronavirus pandemic struck. Now there are eight staff members working on entirely unexpected products — face masks and hospital gowns. A week earlier, a larger local hospital put out a Facebook post looking for sewers to donate time to sew masks.

Ulrich saw that and they started talking about what the company could do to help meet that demand. With a warehouse full of fabric, they were able to make a prototype from a pattern sent by the hospital. Ulrich said they got the prototype to the hospital on a Tuesday, and Wednesday morning they had their first order for 1,000. And in a short time that grew with orders from other hospitals, nursing homes, grocers, meat markets, utility companies and more. Last week, The Teehive set up a website option for ordering. Before that, Ulrich was fielding non-stop calls on his cellphone and even throwing small orders into car windows for customers.

At the start of March, The Teehive was focused on small businesses and work in the restaurant and resort industry. Ulrich said they were generating a lot of work in those fields. With long, close relationships with about eight to 10 manufacturers there, they were aware of what was happening in China and they expected and planned for hits to the supply chain, shifting production to help ease the effect.

Jim Bender (left) and Jerad Clough pull a sheet of fabric Thursday, April 2, at The Teehive in Baxter. The company has switched its production to protective masks and gowns after the outbreak of COVID-19. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Jim Bender (left) and Jerad Clough pull a sheet of fabric Thursday, April 2, at The Teehive in Baxter. The company has switched its production to protective masks and gowns after the outbreak of COVID-19. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“We had no idea at all this was coming,” Ulrich said of the eventual changes that have taken place in American society. But Ulrich said the company was built on flexibility, which is helping now.

“If you would have told me on March 10, we’d be creating masks and gowns that that’s it on April 1st, I would have said that has to be an April Fools’ joke,” Ulrich said. Now, Ulrich is confident the company will be able to meet the additional demand. Thursday, The Teehive was also anticipating the change in face mask recommendations that could alter the landscape yet again.

Friday, April 3, the White House coronavirus briefing reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended voluntary use of non-medical grade masks when out in public to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. It’s a change in guidelines, with past recommendations to only wear masks when ill or believed to be exposed to COVID-19. People with the virus are able to infect others even before they begin to show symptoms or feel sick.

There were early concerns that if everyone were wearing masks that might deepen the concerns health care workers and caregivers had of running out of masks they need as they treat infected patients or try to protect at-risk populations. In recent days, the subject of expanding a fabric face mask of tightly woven fabric for general public use may be coming as a guideline to help flatten the curve and as the numbers of those diagnosed with the disease and those who’ve died continued to rise.

100 Million Mask Challenge

The American Hospital Association expanded the 100 Million Mask Challenge, which started in Washington state, into a national movement to aid health care workers because of the risk of a nationwide shortage for an acronym people are now all-too familiar with — PPE or personal protective equipment.

Three different colors of protective masks created by The Teehive in Baxter Thursday, April 2, are displayed on a table at the company. Masks and gowns are being made from existing fabric that is in stock at their warehouse. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Three different colors of protective masks created by The Teehive in Baxter Thursday, April 2, are displayed on a table at the company. Masks and gowns are being made from existing fabric that is in stock at their warehouse. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Sewers across the nation took up the challenge, whether they were making them for family or to donate to health care and first responders. A Brainerd Lakes Area Mask Makers group formed on Facebook to try to meet the needs with a volunteer effort and trying to match masks with needs. The New York Times recently described the efforts across the county as a sewing army combating a shortage of masks as hospital workers took to social media and news reporters posted stories of them reusing PPE or coming up with makeshift versions as the number of patients climbed.

At Cherrywood Hand-Dyed Fabric in Baxter, owner Karla Overland stepped up early in the process and donated fabric — more than 750 yards — to people who could sew masks for the community effort.

“It has become obvious that we cannot maintain this pace and still stay in business (crazy, I know!), so we have decided to make these kits available for a minimal cost,” stated a post on Cherrywood’s Facebook page. “Our tiny staff is cutting these all by hand.”

Neola Raasch (left) and Lori Thramer pick up free kits to make fabric masks Thursday, March 26, from Cherrywood Hand Dyed Fabrics on College Road in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Neola Raasch (left) and Lori Thramer pick up free kits to make fabric masks Thursday, March 26, from Cherrywood Hand Dyed Fabrics on College Road in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Cherrywood is selling eight pre-cut face masks, about 2 yards of fabric, in a kit for $15 and posted directions for masks on its Facebook page. The business is also accepting $10 donations to be able to provide the kits at cost and stay viable, Cherrywood reported. “There are thousands of sewing warriors out there who are doing their part. We are hand-dying, hand pressing, and hand-cutting these kits to make the mask-makers out there more efficient. Our tightly-woven 100% cotton fabric is very nice for use in face masks.

We know not everyone can sew, but most certainly everyone wants to help. This is a wonderful way to help.”

Face shields, protective barriers, more changes

LINDAR in Baxter, a plastic thermoforming company making products for use with paint products and food packaging among other work, reported on its Facebook page that in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak it put its team to work on developing a face shield for health care and first responders.

At Gull Lake Glass, on Highway 371 North, word spread quickly of the company’s work in Plexiglas after Matt Seymour, owner of a host of convenience stores and gas stations in the lakes area, called about crafting shields for employees.

Nathan Tuomi, Gull Lake Glass owner, said in a phone interview it took off from there. While his business was affected by postponed projects, Tuomi said they’ve been able to respond to orders and install them on the same day. Installations were completed at Costco, McDonald’s, Cub Foods, Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd, Home Choice, the Brainerd Lakes Surgery Center and Crow Wing County.

Gull Lake Glass split its staff into crews to help lower the chance of exposure to the workforce as they respond to a demand for Plexiglas shields. Submitted photo
Gull Lake Glass split its staff into crews to help lower the chance of exposure to the workforce as they respond to a demand for Plexiglas shields. Submitted photo

Tuomi has split his staff into crews to reduce the chance for exposure affecting the entire staff and gave time off for others who weren’t comfortable working with the public or had loved ones at a higher risk.

Super One Foods in Baxter also installed acrylic shields at every checkout lane and counter. In a letter to customers, President Jim Miner Jr. noted COVID-19 is affecting almost every aspect of American life.

“We all continue to adjust to the new way of doing things to help reduce the spread of this alarming illness,” Miner stated, adding during these challenging times, the stores that are part of Miner’s Inc. are working to protect customers and employees.

Other stores announced at the end of last week they would be making additional changes. Walmart reported it was going to limit the number of customers allowed in its stores as of Saturday, April 4, to five customers per 1,000 square feet for what Walmart notes is 20% of a store’s capacity. Customers will be admitted one by one and counted by store associates. Floor markers will be used to help direct one-way movement through store aisles to help customers keep a social distance between them. Once they check out, customers will exit through a different door than they entered to help reduce congestion.

Walmart also reported on its website it was taking temperature checks of associates as they report to work and was sending infrared thermometers to all locations, which was expected to take up to three weeks. Employees with a temperature of 100 degrees would be paid for reporting to work and asked to return home and not return until they are fever-free for at least three days. Across multiple stores, employees are wiping down carts and cleaning checkout lanes and putting up signs and markers to help customers keep the recommended 6-foot distance.

Nathan Toumi, owner at Gull Lake Glass, has been producing Plexiglas protective barriers at a number of area businesses to protect employees and customers. As an indication of the demand, Toumi said he sold more quarter-inch Plexiglas in the last week than in all of last year.  Submitted photo
Nathan Toumi, owner at Gull Lake Glass, has been producing Plexiglas protective barriers at a number of area businesses to protect employees and customers. As an indication of the demand, Toumi said he sold more quarter-inch Plexiglas in the last week than in all of last year. Submitted photo

Costco also reported Friday, April 3, they would temporarily restrict the number of people as well by allowing no more than two people to enter the warehouse with each membership card.

While the Plexiglas barriers were often phrased as temporary, Tuomi said, he believes there will be substantial and permanent changes.

As an indication of the demand, Tuomi said he sold more quarter-inch Plexiglas in the last week than in all of last year.

“And I think, when this is all said and done, I think people are going to change how customers interact with their employees,” Tuomi said, adding he believes people will be a lot more cautious about transferring viruses, colds or influenza. “I think you're going to see a lot of these shields be something that's going to be part of everyday business. … I honestly think this is going to become the new norm to protect employees, and of course customers.”

Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchBizBuzz.