The coronavirus pandemic has led to the panic-buying of one item in particular: toilet paper.
Stores have been rationing the goods, in some cases, doling out as little as one roll apiece. This sudden demand for what some are calling "white gold" is proving a challenge — and an opportunity — for one fledgling family business in a Maine, where the paper industry has seen some hard times.
"It's been insane. I don't sleep much," says owner Marc Cooper. But he's up, overseeing the early shift anyway. It's a busy, industrial scene of forklifts and pallets, and workers hustling from machine to machine, turning out rolls of tissue. It's been this way since his toilet paper startup, Tissue Plus, was forced into sudden go-mode.
"So unfortunately, we weren't quite prepared for this to happen so quickly," Cooper says. "but we're doing our best to meet the demand. We've been very fortunate that there's been a good workforce available."
Shouting over the din of some proprietary machinery that does something we're not allowed to describe, Jeff Clement is busy keeping the rolls on the rails.
"Try to make sure they go in there nice and straight," he explains. "If they get crooked it'll mess everything up."
Clement spent 30 years working at a nearby mill before it closed in 2014. An abundance of skilled paper workers like Clement is one reason Cooper decided to use his life savings to launch a new toilet paper factory in Bangor, Maine, — a small riverside city probably most famous for its association with several Stephen King horror stories, including It. But the area's paper-making heritage, coupled with an availability of raw material made sense. And the product made sense, since it was something people would need every day.
Cooper has been able to take on 20 full-time workers so far. One of them is Peter Hamel who spent decades at another mill before it closed in 2006. Hamel says he never thought he'd see a new paper plant nearby, but he's hopeful.
"I think we're gonna make it," he says. "It's an opportunity and it's good for the area, bring employment into the area."
And right now, he's making one of hottest items on the planet.
"I actually received an inquiry from the country of Iceland yesterday," says owner Marc Cooper. "Grocery store chains from Florida, distributors from around the country. The demand is insane for toilet paper."
Right now, Tissue Plus is churning out toilet tissue and paper towels 18 hours a day, but even local demand from individuals, senior centers, stores, and the state prison system is unspooling every roll as fast as the workers can wind them, although Cooper says the company also donates a number of rolls to help homeless shelters and pantries get through the crisis.
Cooper says it'll take another 15 to 20 workers to get the plant up to its full speed of about 80 rolls per minute, round the clock.
He's hoping a new online toilet paper subscription service he's just launched at tissueplus.com, among other ideas, will help fund those jobs. He's also planning to donate a portion of the proceeds he raises to helping those hurt by the pandemic.
But new enterprises are notoriously unprofitable. Cooper says so far, they've only seen money "go in one direction": out.
But there are signs of a turnaround. In February, Cooper says Tissue Plus almost broke even, and with demand for the most important paper in the house only increasing, he's predicting that the company will break even, and maybe even turn a small profit.
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