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Release Date: April 13,2020

Vanguard Brewpub Making Hand Sanitizer

Like several other owners of distilleries in the area, Randy Thomas decided when the pandemic came to Hampton Roads to start making one of the hardest-to-find products — hand sanitizer.

After all, he already knew how to make liquor.

His Vanguard Brewpub & Distillery in downtown Hampton has been at it for two weeks, but now he has a new problem — finding the ingredients.

“It’s not like we are buying a shipping container of raw goods. Every day, I have a new challenge," Thomas said. "I am running low on spray bottles. I have product, but I don’t have bottles. In a couple of days, my challenge is going to be (getting) isopropyl alcohol.”

That was Tuesday’s problem. On Wednesday, the company sold what it made and so the challenge again was looking for more spray bottles.

“Until I can get supply chains that are reliable, I can’t, I just don’t know ... what’s happening until that next day,” he said.

Thomas also needs hydrogen peroxide and glycerol. Hunting for the best deals online is a moving target in terms of prices ― every day, he watches the rules of economics play out on his computer screen.

“You have a supplier that has given you a certain amount of stuff today, and you call them tomorrow and you can’t get it for two weeks. So, you go online and look, and you find another source and it’s way more expensive,” he said. "... you got to figure out, do I bite the bullet and buy that and continue to make it and ... drive my costs way out of whack?

“Everything is becoming more valuable," Thomas said. "Spray bottles that were under a dollar (weeks ago) at 76 cents … in the course of three days, it’s gone up to $1.19.”

Making the hand sanitizer — last seen on most store shelves late January — has cut into his more lucrative core business. Thomas converts ethanol reserved to make the bourbon, gin or vodka he’d would normally produce.

“We had bourbon ready to go ... the raw spirit that was getting ready to go into barrels, was sitting in a stainless-steel tank. That volume of alcohol would have netted me in two years ... about $26,000 worth of bourbon,” he said. “We are giving up a significant amount of revenue and future product.”

So far this week, Vanguard has made some 275 gallons of hand sanitizer.

Thomas is looking for new avenues to improve manufacturing capabilities. Vanguard is working with owners from Ironclad Distillery, in neighboring Newport News to secure bulk raw materials.

“We are constantly helping each other out," he said. “(Ironclad) was buying plastic containers and I found bulk hydrogen peroxide. We are helping each other to bulk-source the ingredients. We are trying to achieve the same.”

Kara King, a co-owner at Ironclad, said she spent part of Thursday morning hunting down glycerol. She ultimately drove to Virginia Beach to fetch the haul, then drop off some to Vanguard, before heading back to her shop at 124 23rd Street.

“The hand sanitizer business is booming but sourcing all the ingredients to get is a wild goose chase. There is a shortage of everything,” King said. “It’s worth it because it’s something that we can do for the community.”

Ironclad mainly sells in bulk to businesses. The company also donates supplies to hospitals, first responders, hospices and other organizations that really need it, King said.

For now, Thomas is selling his hand sanitizer outside his restaurant at 504 N. King Street, in various sizes, but he also is looking at other channels.

With a strong ready-made market, Thomas already has secured orders with the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Langley Air Force Base Hospital, Hampton VA Medical Center and other medical facilities, he said.

“It’s kind of my only source of revenue. It’s definitely a commitment once people expect you to have it," Thomas said. "Until there’s no need for hand sanitizer, or they open up and let us go back to our normal course of business, I’m going to keep doing it.”

Lisa Vernon Sparks, 757-247-4832,