Houston coffee startup pivots to hand sanitizing product amid pandemic

Constantine Zotos (left) and Mitchell Webber pivoted their coffee business toward hand sanitizer manufacturing amid the pandemic. Today, the company has around 60 employees and produces 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day. Photo courtesy of Modern Chemical

Houstonians' workday routines look much different today than they did seven months ago. With a large percentage of people working from home, office rituals have come to a halt and few habits have been immune to change — including our coffee consumption.

In early March, Constantine Zotos and Mitchell Webber already knew this didn't mean good things for their local nitro coffee company, Recharge Brewing Co. Though the brand had grown steadily over the better course of two years, the duo had focused their business on installing and supplying their nitro coffee taps to two of the most taboo markets at the time: office spaces and restaurants.The duo aptly predicted that the demand for their product would soon dry up and quickly shifted their operations to focus on a product that was considered a necessity: hand sanitizer.

To get started, the young entrepreneurs and their small team of six began cold calling down a list of Purell distributors they found online. They soon found that many businesses could hardly keep the product in stock.

"They asked us if they could fly a jet down to pick up the hand sanitizer themselves," Zottos says of one distributor. "I told them not to get ahead of themselves, but it just speaks to the sense of urgency everyone had."

The team studied up on the basic ingredients of hand sanitizer to make the liquid, alcohol-based form that infiltrated the market in the first few weeks of the pandemic. At the time there was such a rush for the product, and such a low supply of the material needed to make it, that the team resorted to selling the product without traditional pump tops or plastic caps. Instead they used the slow release plastic pourers that are often used on liquor bottles.

Still, they were focused on doing it right. In addition to the long hours spend to get the product out the door, Zotos and Webber took special care to ensure that their sanitizer met all FDA and EPA requirements by working with consultants and lawyers, as well as reading up on all the pertinent documents and literature between sleeping shifts and time on the shop floor.

"We took the stance that we would rather rush toward compliance rather than run from it," Zotos says.

It didn't seem to slow down the demand. One week in they formed Modern Chemical, and by the middle of the month the company was fulfilling substantial orders with a team of 40 employees. By the summer, Modern Chemical released a gel-based, FDA-registered sanitizer that got them in with giant B2B clients, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, Jefferson Parish School District, and recently the City of Austin.

The pair agrees that their background with Recharge gave them a leg up in the beginning.

"Knowing the pumps and hoses and all the stuff you really need to run a bottle facility and a hand sanitizer facility, we already had," Webber says. "On top of that when all this started, there were some long days and long nights, but being in the nitro coffee business, we were used to long hours. It prepared us for this huge push for the drastic demand that needed to be filled."

Location and timing also played a huge role in their success, Zotos adds. "When the pandemic struck we were able to bring on a lot of people who are extraordinarily talented throughout the company. If we weren't hiring in the pandemic environment like this I think we would be hard pressed to find people as talented as we did as quickly as we did," he says. "And Houston really played a big part in that."

Today, the company of about 60 employees is producing about 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day and is in the process of launching disinfectant wipes and spray. They recently moved all of the Modern Chemical operations into a new and improved facility off Air Tec and Interstate 45 that will allow for more efficient packaging and loading of products and — in another pivot — are even offering custom labeling, scenting and color dyes, plus specialty dispensing stands for their product.

"Neither of us have a chemical background and we are not ignorant to that. But we know how the equipment works from an operational side of things and if we can make the packaging look the best. If we can package the most for the best price then people are going to want to buy it," Zotos says. "Instead of taking the let's do everything route, we found our niche in the chemical supply chain, which is packaging."

And as Modern Chemical continues to settle into its new space and eventually a post-pandemic market, Zotos and Webber plan to revisit and revamp Recharge Brewing with the lessons they've learned. The duo plans to use their original facilities to help other small business owners launch and produce beverage brands of their own by early 2021.

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Building Houston

 
 

What's an employee group and why do you need to know about it during Hispanic Heritage Month? This Houston expert explains. Photo via Getty Images

Making a name for yourself in corporate America is no easy task. It is especially hard if you are the first generation in your family to attend college in this country and the first to take a stab at climbing the corporate ladder. The secret behind those who successfully make it to the top is access to a strong support group.

Finding the right support system, one that provides professional and personal mentorship and one that you identify with culturally, can help you navigate the business world and help you achieve your career goals.

Many Hispanic/Latino professionals have found that support system in employee groups, or EGs.

What are EGs and how can they help Hispanic professionals succeed?

EGs are employee-led groups that foster inclusivity and build community. The purpose of the group is to provide personal and professional support to its members, who usually share certain characteristics in common – like being Hispanic, or those who simply have interest in learning about a culture that is not unique to them.

AT&T has 14 EGs, including HACEMOS, which was established in 1988 and is dedicated to supporting Hispanic employees and the communities they live in. There are 36 HACEMOS chapters across the country supporting more than 8,500 members. The Houston chapter currently supports 278 members – all in different phases of their career.

HACEMOS members believe that “Juntos HACEMOS más,” which means “Together we do more.” Under that guiding belief, members work together to support each other in advancing their careers. Through HACEMOS, AT&T employees can participate in various professional development learning opportunities and have access to one- on-one mentorship sessions with members from the leadership team.

For many members, the group offers a safe environment to engage and learn from other professionals who understand their personal and professional hurdles from a cultural point of view.

At a personal level, the support I receive from HACEMOS has helped me to better understand and be proud of my heritage. HACEMOS has embraced my “Latina” identity, encouraging me to continue using my Spanish skills to serve our Latino customers within AT&T.

EGs provide members with a sense of community and belonging. 

Most EGs have a community aspect to them that allow members to work together to address needs in their communities. HACEMOS members in Houston take pride in organizing, volunteering, and participating in various initiatives that provide support to the most vulnerable members of their community.

This year, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Houston HACEMOS Chapter will be hosting events throughout the city, helping support our youth and instill the importance of continuing their education and striving for success. Our national group is actively volunteering on efforts to help close the digital divide (the gap between people who have reliable internet access and those who do not) which is more likely to impact people of color, especially Hispanic families.

EGs create a win-win for employees and employers. 

EGs are beneficial to employees and employers. It’s true, EG members are engaged and develop strong relationships with their colleagues from other departments resulting in a collaborative environment.

Also, the company benefits from the knowledge and skills EG members gain through the various workshops and learning resources. In addition, EG members serve as brand ambassadors in the community for the company while they participate in community volunteer events.

So, if the company you work for currently does not have an EG you identify with, it’s easy to build your case to launch one. And if your company has an EG you identify with, then I encourage you to join it today – I can ensure you, it will be a rewarding experience that can help you advance your career.

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Erika Portillo is the Houston HACEMOS president for AT&T.

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