From staff reports
Businesses throughout Leelanau County had to adapt on the fly when the Coronavirus arrived and commerce shut down in March. Northern Latitudes Distillery in Lake Leelanau not only retooled their business and retail space, owners Mandy and Mark Moseler prioritized making hand sanitizer—a biproduct of the distillery’s spirits—and supplied it free of charge to essential workers and those on the frontlines in the battle against COVID-19, including first responders, schools, home health care nurses, homeless shelters, medical care facilities, churches and food pantries. We talked to the Moselers about this crazy year, and how they got through it.
Glen Arbor Sun: How did you react when the pandemic officially arrived in March? Was the decision to make hand sanitizer an instantaneous one? When did you decide to sell it?
Northern Latitudes: When the pandemic arrived Mark and I knew we had to focus on safety first, then making money. We spent a few thousand dollars on acrylic panels, 2x4s and a couple of intercom systems (because we all know how hard it is to communicate through those panels). In the beginning it seemed every two weeks we and our steadfast employees were modifying how we did business: No inside cocktails, then we were permitted to sell cocktails to-go, so we set up a bar, separate from our permanent bar, to more easily reach customers outside.
We soon realized that our cocktails to-go customers wanted a place to stay onsite and enjoy their cocktails, and the Michigan Liquor Control Commission allowed us to create a temporary outside area. We thought we’d open our tasting room using acrylic panels to separate employees and customers but didn’t have the employees to cover the entire room so we moved everything into our chamber gift shop; This meant we were unable to use our dishwasher and our glass tasting glasses so we spent hundreds of dollars on plant-based compostable tasting glasses. We limited our customer numbers to six inside at a time so we had to add an employee outside to greet and explain our new setup and monitor our front door that also meant a wait to get in during the busier times of late July, August, September and October. For eight years we have given four free tastings but lessened it to two free tastings to shorten their time inside. On Oct. 13, when our area’s COVID-19 numbers went up, we stopped tastings entirely because until then we would allow customers to take off their masks for the few moments it took them to drink their tasting. Since the very beginning we have required EVERY customer to be masked.
When you own a business, you learn to “roll with the punches” and reinvent yourself as necessary to keep your company alive. We knew we had the knowledge and equipment to make hand sanitizer, just not the federal and state permission. We had to wait for those government entities to allow us. We, like so many companies, were affected by the initial shutdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 but because of our ability to make and provide hand sanitizer when the larger companies couldn’t make enough to fill the demand in our country, it allowed us to pivot and help out our community.
Sun: What other ways has Northern Latitudes reached out to help the community during COVID? I know you have supplied sanitizer to first responders and schools? Any other businesses or institutions?
Northern Latitudes: Large quantities of free Northern Latitudes Distillery hand sanitizer went to the Grand Traverse Band Fire and Rescue, Leelanau and Grand Traverse first responders; local schools; not-for-profit home health care nurses; two local homeless shelters; not-for-profit medical care facilities; a resource center for women; local churches; a local volunteer pantry and anyone who came to our business and could not afford to pay for the hand sanitizer.
Sun: Tell me more about the effort with schools this fall? How did that start, and who initiated it?
Northern Latitudes: As former public school teachers, Mark and I wanted to try to lessen the risk of COVID-19 infection to staff and students. Schools do outstanding work with the insufficient budgets they are given. We thought if we could provide our World Health Organization-formula hand sanitizer to them, then that was one thing they didn’t have to find money for in their budget. I simply called the schools and talked with whomever would talk with me. I connected with secretaries, principals, business managers, and a superintendent. If I couldn’t reach a school via phone, I emailed them. Most schools wanted the gallon containers with pumps on them but some schools also asked for our 4-ounce spray bottles so each child could have their own, or so each classroom could have multiple spray bottles.
Sun: If you’re willing to share this — how have profits or sales in 2020 compared with previous years?
Northern Latitudes: Spring was tough for the bottom line. It’s a tough time of year for most businesses in our area and we had to switch over to making hand sanitizer. This involved completely reinventing our business with the purchase of new ingredients and packaging, many of which skyrocketed in price because most small distilleries in the U.S. began making hand sanitizer and were trying to purchase the same products. It was amazing, though, the customers who would come in and purchase hand sanitizer and say, “keep the change” or leave a few dollars or $10 or $20 to help the next person who was struggling to pay for hand sanitizer. From the beginning, we told people if they were having trouble paying for hand sanitizer, they could have it for free. About halfway through July hand sanitizer sales declined and sales of spirits increased. With recent COVID-19 numbers increasing, in our area since mid-October, so have our hand sanitizer sales.
Sun: Will the pandemic change your business model in any permanent ways? That is, once we have a vaccine and it’s safe to congregate inside again, might you keep your walkup window open?
Northern Latitudes: Northern Latitudes, like many service industry companies, is employee/payroll heavy. Since March we have had our tasting room and cocktail bar area closed (our choice mostly) and have worked solely out of what we call our chamber gift shop. We had continued doing our free tastings up until Oct 13 when our area’s COVID-19 numbers tripled. We have done a lot in about 1,000 square feet and with a skeleton crew! So yes, Mark and I are rethinking how our business was set up previously and how what we have learned during this global pandemic can help streamline Northern Latitudes post COVID-19. Customers and our team all like the area we lovingly call “the fishbowl” but our business is dictated by the Liquor Control Commission. We’ll see what they allow in the future.
Sun: Personally, how have you managed through this difficult year? What has been the biggest challenge? And what has kept your “spirits” up (no pun intended)?
Northern Latitudes: We love our business and what we do every day. Not only is Northern Latitude our livelihood but it supports our employees too. We are grateful to still have a company that we can work hard to continue! However, we know we would not be here without the hard work of our employees and the support of our customers. Without them Northern Latitude would no longer exist. How have we kept our spirits up? How has anyone during these tumultuous times with the global pandemic, civil unrest and the chaos of our federal government? We take care of ourselves, our business and help as many people around us as possible.