Erie County, Pennsylvania
Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic response, Mario Mazza, who serves as vice president and general manager of Robert Mazza, Inc., is more thankful than ever for his family business’ employee team.
“Our team’s willingness to adapt and tolerate our constant pivots allowed us to take advantage of windows of opportunity that were exceedingly small,” Mario said.
A family business spanning decades
The Mazza family has been making craft beverages on the shores of Lake Erie for more than 50 years. Beginning with a single vineyard in 1972, the business now incorporates five locations and dozens of products, including spirits and craft beers.
Today, Mazza produces more than 375,000 gallons of fresh juice and wine and has approximately 550 acres under grape and grain cultivation in Lake Erie wine country.
Diversified distribution channels
Stay-at-home orders due to the spread of COVID-19 drastically altered the wine, beer and spirits supply chain.
“People were drinking at home and not at restaurants,” Mario said. “Because of this, all of our forecasts for April were useless. We couldn’t schedule more than two weeks out because there was no reliable way to know our orders.”
However, as liquor control board sales ceased and restaurant distributor business diminished, grocery store sales picked up. Fortuitously, Mario invested in creating a more robust online market last year. And that investment has paid valuable dividends in the face of the pandemic, as people were asked to avoid leaving their homes.
“While our own retail operations and tasting rooms were closed, we saw an acceleration in our online sales and new customers,” he said.
These mixed sales markets have proved vital for Robert Mazza, Inc. throughout the COVID-19 economy. “The pandemic really is a mixed bag for us, and we are grateful for our layers of distribution channels,” Mario said. “Our business is probably the most diverse we’ve ever been in nearly 50 years, leaving us in as good a place as possible.”
The sanitizer shift
In the early weeks of the pandemic, hand sanitizer was a scarce commodity, and alcohol is a primary ingredient in sanitizer production.
“Our staff saw an opportunity to pivot our whiskey business to hand sanitizer,” Mario said. “We weren’t the first to come up with the idea, but we grabbed it early.”
Although the distillery was not an authorized Federal Drug Administration (FDA) facility at the time, which is required for hand sanitizer production, the Mazza team adjusted its supply chain, tracking down sanitizer containers and retooled their processes to meet FDA standards.
Once approved for sanitizer production, Mario remembers that his staff’s next question was “how do we make a positive impact?”
“Our first focus was donating sanitizer to non-profits, healthcare providers and other organizations in our community,” said Mario. “There was a need and we were fortunate to be in a position to help in a small way.”
To meet demand, Mario needed two employees whose sole job it was to field the daily phone and email inquiries. “Any customer that needed hand sanitizer could come down to make a contactless, curbside pickup,” he said.
Back in the office, employees created a ‘wall of thanks’ where they collected Facebook posts and emails from the appreciative community members they had served.
More uncertainty, as well as optimism ahead
By seizing opportunities quickly, such as hand sanitizer production, and securing a Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan through Horizon Farm Credit, Mario was able to keep his staff working through the pandemic without any layoffs.
“Participating in a PPP loan was no small task,” he said. “And, since Horizon also handles our payroll, it was a natural fit for us to work with them on the PPP loan.”
Moving into grape harvest this fall, Mario is optimistic. “It’s definitely been a challenging year and we still have months of uncertainty ahead of us,” he said. “But it keeps us from being complacent.”