Business Unusual: A Distillery’s In-House Hand Sanitizer Becomes a Local Hit

Portland, Oregon’s Shine Distillery & Grill’s in-house distilling ingredient — ethyl alcohol — helped save the day for the young operation during COVID-19.

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Here’s how a patron’s spontaneous suggestion led Shine to pivot and create impromptu hand sanitizer — a decision that has helped their sales and brand recognition

“Our dream wasn’t to make hand sanitizer in a 7,000-square-foot building with a 250-seat restaurant,” Ryan Ruelos says. “But now we are.”

Ruelos is the general manager of Shine Distillery & Grill, the Portland, Oregon business he co-owns with Jon Poteet. Having opened in July of 2019, the pair’s goal was to start a liquor company with an attached restaurant supporting its product line of beverages.

Two things the owners didn’t expect to encounter in their first year? A pandemic, and creating an in-house hand sanitizer that would become a business solution to it.

Two things the owners didn’t expect to encounter in their first year? A pandemic, and creating an in-house hand sanitizer that would become a business solution to it.
“Getting our name known as a new business was hard, but now a lot of people in the small city/big town of Portland know of us because of the hand sanitizer,” Ruelos says. “All of a sudden everyone knows our name because you’ll see bottles of Shine hand sanitizer sitting on counters all over the place. Our [liquor] sales have increased a lot because of recognition due to the hand sanitizer.”

While Shine’s 7 signature products — various flavors of vodka, gin, bourbon, and tequila — are what you’d expect from a spirit company, the impromptu hand sanitizer made from Shine’s in-house distilling ingredient ethyl alcohol, sort of saved the day for the young operation when COVID-19 jolted the service industry.

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Shine Distillery & Grill’s 7 signature products.

It all started with a patron’s spontaneous suggestion.

“We’ve always used ethyl alcohol to clean around the bar, and one day a guest saw Jon using it and she asked if she could have some,” Ruelos recalls of that fateful Friday, March 6. “Our distiller overheard and said, ‘I can make hand sanitizer.’”

Pivoting operations

By that Monday, Shine was bottling, labeling, and giving away 3-ounce travel bottles of Shine sanitizer to clients. The owners shared the simple recipe of ethyl alcohol (used to make grain neutral spirits like vodka and gin), xanthan gum for texture, and water to other distillers. And it was a hit with locals.

“People started flooding into the restaurant and we had one of our busiest weeks!” Ruelos shares.

Portland’s shelter-in-place began on March 17. At that time, Shine immediately modified operations to ramp up takeout food, bottled liquor sales, and hand sanitizer. The business implemented a new online store and pickup service.

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Shine’s hand sanitizer, made with their in-house distilling ingredient ethyl alcohol.

By March 23, when the restaurant’s kitchen closed, sanitizer was keeping the remaining staff busy. “At that point, the phone was ringing off the hook for hand sanitizer; 2 cordless phones and 2 desk phones with 5 of us constantly fielding calls about hand sanitizer.”

Shine now sells hand sanitizer in a range of sizes — from 4-ounce to 1-gallon containers (at a cost of $6 to $57). Ruelos says it’s not uncommon for someone to come and buy hand sanitizer and leave with a bottle of bourbon.

Creativity and collaboration

Due to COVID-19, Shine’s employee count went from 35 to 9, but the owners are continuously brainstorming ways to change with the times.

“We’re looking for different revenue sources,” Ruelos says. “We want to bring our kitchen staff back in to work on to-go meal packs for 2-person to 4-person family dinners. We’re doing cocktail kits and working with other local businesses.”

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Owners Ryan Ruelos and Jon Poteet holding their Shine Sanitizer.

Collaborating with fellow business owners has been key. Ruelos cites partnerships and the Portland Independent Restaurant Alliance as having helped Shine switch things up through this pandemic. Just as the distillery immediately shared its hand sanitizer recipe with peers, it has benefited from mutual support.

Shine was able to pivot operations to include sanitizer with Rose City Label’s label printing services. Cocktail kits happen with help from Botanist @ Your Door liquor delivery service, Honeybee Lemonade Syrups, Portland Syrups, and KingletTea.

“Everyone shares knowledge of how they’re getting through this,” he says.

Rethink your brick-and-mortar

“Get creative about how you can work with your own space to make it work in the new world.”

In this time of social distancing, it’s important to rethink building spaces to keep them from becoming dead weight. Ruelos advises brick-and-mortar owners to not just make the most of what you have. He says to make something new with your infrastructure.

“Instead of focusing on how difficult this is, I’m starting to think how to staff differently and how we can make it work in a different way. Get creative about how you can work with your own space to make it work in the new world.”

To meet social distance requirements upon reopening, he suggests construction tactics — like taking out a wall or window to create space and air flow — in order to remain accessible to the public.

“We’re talking about a window cocktail bar where people on the street can see bartenders making drinks and people take them away, and using money to create a collapsible window for airflow. If you have funding, take this opportunity to think about big things that will make your space more desirable and also can be sold as a safety precaution.”

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Shine’s main bar. Ruelos recommends restaurants look into construction tactics — like creating a window cocktail bar — in order to remain accessible to the public during COVID-19.

He says that, for restaurants, the current lack of in-house dining means a pause to take care of other tasks such as:

  • Rebuilding your website
  • Redoing parts of your restaurant that need upkeep
  • Hiring someone to deep clean your business while it’s vacant
  • Modifying your restaurant now to fit post-SIP operations and regulations

“If you’re prepared for social distanced reopening, you can weather the storm,” Ruelos says.

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