Remember back in March, when the course of the COVID-19 pandemic looked uncertain and Americans were panic buying food, toiletries and personal protective equipment (PPE)? Pat Illes of Mount Royal Soap Co. remembers. When he saw bottles of hand sanitizer selling for astronomical prices online, he decided to intervene.
“I knew how to make it, and we had some ingredients,” Illes said. “So I whipped up a batch of it, and just put up an Instagram post for our neighbors that said, ‘If you need some gel sanitizer, here’s a bottle that doesn’t cost $100.’”
From that first batch, production scaled up tremendously — Illes and co-owners Matt Williams and Sam Kiffer are now moving production to a new 8500-square-foot facility in Woodberry outfitted with upgraded machinery, space to fulfill large orders and even a forklift. Illes said that they’d dreamed of moving into the space, which was previously occupied by soap company Biggs & Featherbelle. But don’t worry — they won’t be leaving their familiar Remington storefront any time soon.
Shifting from classic soap production to drums of hand sanitizer thrust Mount Royal into the spotlight, as demand for PPE erupted in Baltimore and around the world. Illes and his business partners could hardly keep up as they were flooded with urgent orders.
“It was a little scary, because we had the City of Baltimore coming to us, the funny little soap shop on the corner in Remington, for something that they desperately needed to protect themselves,” Illes said.
If you need hand sanitizer or hand soap for yourself, your family, your roommates or your workplace, check out Mount Royal’s PPE on their site.
As they began to scale up, a $7500 grant from Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) allowed them to purchase a pair of piston fillers, one for small squeeze bottles and one for gallon jugs. The fillers were an investment in efficiency — they went from filling 100 small bottles to filling 700 in an hour, and while they had previously lacked the equipment for gallon jugs, they could now fill 1100 in a day.
Consumers weren’t the only ones panic buying either. The pandemic disrupted global production, and many small businesses struggled to find the supplies they needed. When Bill Stevenson of Waverly Color Co. offered Mount Royal a warehouse full of empty squeeze bottles, Illes bought out his entire stock.
“We were going as fast as we could, but we needed better equipment to fill bottles with,” he said. “The BDC grant — that was absolutely crucial.”
Mount Royal continued to grow, inking a regional grocery store procurement deal and supplying a large defense department agency. They have continued to upgrade equipment beyond the BDC grant, but while scaling up in equipment and supply surged, other parts of business grew more slowly. Personnel, Illes said, is still a challenge. Staying on top of large orders left little time for hiring, although their team will need to expand as they move into the new facility.
Mount Royal will focus on shifting production to their Woodberry space while their Remington store remains closed to the public. Illes said that while they love and miss their customers, they want to be sure to stay safe, doing business online and through no-contact pickup.
Asked for advice on scaling up, Illes responded, “Don’t do it this quickly, if you can avoid it.”
He went on to add that small business owners grappling with growth should tap into networks of support like BDC and Made In Baltimore.
“They’ve been a huge help. If you don’t know and the person you’re asking doesn’t know, they might know someone who knows,” he said. “Just ask people for advice. People want to help.”
Mount Royal also collaborated on PPE production with other local businesses, building partnerships to help more local makers and entrepreneurs stay afloat throughout the pandemic. They relied on the MIB-certified facility at Charm City Meadworks to accommodate their quick burst of growth. More recently, they partnered with fellow MIB member Open Works to create mobile hand sanitizer stations that can be easily stocked and distributed to schools, hospitals and other facilities.
Illes said that the challenges Mount Royal faced in scaling up proved to him the importance of investing in local small- and mid-scale manufacturing.
“The people who are making PPE here in Baltimore and regionally — we have more invested in the enterprise than just money,” he said. “I could end up in the hospital where our sanitizer or Quality Mask Supply’s masks are being used, or my mom could end up there.”
Ultimately, Illes said, expanding to include PPE production in the midst of the pandemic was fulfilling for Mount Royal.
“We’re doing our very small part providing something that otherwise people wouldn’t be able to have on the front lines,” he said. “We’re incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to supply critical needs.”
Thanks for reading! Please visit Mount Royal Soap Co.’s online store to check out a range of hand sanitizer, soap and other products here.
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