'A Lifeline, and a Call to Action': N.H. Companies Look to Pitch in on Coronavirus Response

Mar 25, 2020

Fabrizia Spirits in Salem relies on a key ingredient that you might not think would come in handy during a pandemic: lemons

“We buy and process about 700,000 lemons a year,” said owner Phil Mastroianni.

Normally those lemons go into limoncello, an Italian liqueur. But the coronavirus completely transformed Mastroianni’s business in the course of just one day last week.

In the morning, a customer who was buying $120,000 worth of liqueur put the sale on hold. By noon, Mastroianni was telling his two newest employees that their hours would likely be cut back.

Then that same evening, there was more news, and Mastroianni saw an opportunity: Federal regulators were lifting restrictions on distilleries like Fabrizia to allow them to immediately begin making a new product: hand sanitizer.

“We saw that as a lifeline and as a call to action at the same time,” he said.

Manufacturers across New Hampshire are scrambling to find ways to both stay in business and help combat the pandemic. In at least some cases, they’re succeeding in both. For Fabrizia Spirits, the move to making hand sanitizer wasn’t all that difficult. The main ingredient, after all, is the same in both.

“I have lemons from Sorrento, Italy at our facility right now, that we haven’t even been able to peel this week because we’ve been making hand sanitizer,” Mastroianni said. “And those same lemons, we’re blending that into this hand sanitizer and it’s giving it a really nice lemon fragrance.”

Mastroianni estimated he’ll soon be able to make 10,000 bottles of lemony hand sanitizer each day. Twenty percent of those bottles will be donated to hospitals and other health care providers. And those two employees who were looking at cuts to their hours? They’re now working overtime.

In the town of Lincoln in the White Mountains, outdoor apparel company Burgeon is also transitioning to a new product line. Founder Rudy Glocker said they’ve entirely switched over from making windbreakers for hikers to making masks for medical workers.

“It’s right in line with our mission, you know, we want to help mountain communities flourish,” Glocker said. “Granted, we thought we were going to do that by making outdoor apparel, but you know, sometimes you have to pivot, so that’s what we’ve done.”

Burgeon is donating every mask it makes, about 100 each day. Glocker knows that doing that at a time when sales are slow isn’t exactly a recipe for sustainability. But he noted with a laugh that as new company - only four months old - he wasn’t expecting to make a profit this year anyways.

“I joked with somebody, if this is going to be a reason why we go bankrupt, it’s a pretty darn good reason,” Glocker said.

There are also New Hampshire companies that were already making equipment useful to the current crisis that are trying to ramp up their efforts to meet the moment.

Vapotherm, an Exeter-based company, makes a medical device that delivers oxygen-rich air to patients with difficulty breathing, which can happen in severe cases of COVID-19. Joe Army, Vapotherm’s CEO, said the device can be used to treat patients who need help but don’t require a mechanical ventilator, which hospitals all over the country are racing to secure.

“For every one of our systems that we build that goes into a hospital, that’s another ventilator that’s available to a patient whose life depends on it,” he said.

Army said his company has already tripled production in just the past week. He’s even hiring more than 20 new employees, at a time when unemployment claims in the state are breaking records. But in the global mad dash for medical device parts, Army said, competition with other manufacturers is limiting his ability to increase production any further.

“The thing that would really help us a lot is getting a letter on the White House letterhead, or the coronavirus task force letterhead, or even the governor’s letterhead that designates us as a critical supplier,” he said.

In the meantime, the state of New Hampshire is now officially soliciting help from businesses like these. In an online form, companies can sign up to donate or manufacture the medical supplies that will be critically needed in the coming weeks.