MISSOULA — When the pandemic hit in March, a Missoula manufacturing company shifted its focus from making cycles and carts to producing face shields for first responders and other frontline workers.
While the move kept dozens of employees on the job during the economic shutdown, it also prompted a new beer – something else Missoula is good at making. Proceeds from that beer will fund the donation of face shields to a number of local groups and organizations.
But first, Coaster Cycles of Missoula had work to do.
“It was back in March, just like most other business, that we had to lay off or furlough most of our staff,” said Justin Bruce, the COO of Coaster Cycles. “It was the first time in 15 years of us having this business that we’d have to lay off our first person.”
Those furloughs swept through the business on a Tuesday and they didn’t sit well with company leaders. By Friday, one of the company’s early engineers released an open source design for a face shield.
Bruce began sources the parts within the hour and an explored the challenges of launching a new business. With personal protective equipment in short supply across the country and the pandemic picking up, orders for the shields began rolling in.
The Providence Hospital Group, which owns 51 regional hospitals including St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, ordered 500,000 face shields. The New York City Health Department followed with an order of 150,000.
“It was something we knew we had to figure out, and figure out quickly,” said Bruce. “We essentially started the business in two weeks. We’re still making them and will probably go through July.”
With the orders in hand, along with that open source design, Coaster Cycles called 45 workers back to the job. But with concerns over social distancing and the logistical challenges of running three different shifts or working weekends, they took another route.
They enlisted several Missoula businesses to help, including Imagination Brewing, Kettlehouse Brewing, Catalyst Cafe, Bravo Catering and Alcom. They too called their employees back to work.
“They all jumped on board and brought crews together,” said Bruce. “We ended making it about 115 people building face shields for several months straight. We were able to help five other businesses keep their business afloat and hire back their employees. It was a neat team effort.”
Coaster Cycles has manufactured 1.7 million face shields to date and will likely suspend operations at 2 million, depending on where the pandemic heads, later this month.
As it turns out, partnering with a bunch of brewers has its perks.
After several months of partnership, the companies decided to make a beer to celebrate their unique and timely collaboration. Imagination Brewing co-founder Robert Rivers named it “Fighting Chance.”
“Our hope with this project is that millions of people affected by COVID-19 will have a Fighting Chance,” Rivers said.
For every four-pack sold, Coaster Cycles is donating one face shield to one of several groups, including the Montana Racial Equity Project, Missoula County Public Schools, the Poverello Center, the All Nations Health Center and Ag Worker Health & Services.
“I’ve been going to the brewery every week and half,” said Bruce. “They made Fighting Chance and made the label and put the coaster cycle on it.”