It's not 'business as usual'

Chicago Jewish small business owners retool during pandemic

Sonat Birnecker image
KOVAL Distillery co-founder Sonat Birnecker Hart temporarily shifted production from spirits to sanitizer during the pandemic.

Just as the coronavirus was hurtling toward Chicago in March, Justin Jacobson spotted his son and daughter, ages 4 and 2, sweeping with their toy broom set.  

Around that time, Jacobson's Northbrook-based event production company, Platinum Events, was starting to lose business due to the pandemic.  

A single Jewish father, he knew he had to act fast for the sake of his children--and his employees. "I had an army of staff who were depending on me," he said. 

His children's game of pretend inspired Jacobson's very real solution for saving his company from the brink of disaster: He would convert it into a decontamination business. 

Platinum Sanitation Services, as he renamed it, was operational within a week. In the first two months of the crisis, Platinum had decontaminated close to 7 million square feet of industrial, manufacturing, retail, and medical facilities. 

"I do believe what we're doing is a mitzvah," said Jacobson, who hopes to run both Platinum businesses simultaneously when event planning picks back up. "We are going into hot zones, where most people would not, to make them a safe environment for people to work." 

There are more than 1 million small businesses in Illinois, according to the Small Business Administration, including numerous Chicago Jewish mom and pop businesses. 

With a blend of agility, creativity, compassion, and  sechel , some small business owners, like Jacobson, are salvaging their companies, and the jobs of the people who work for them, while helping pandemic relief efforts at the same time.  

Robert Birnecker and Sonat Birnecker Hart, Jewish co-founders of KOVAL Distillery in Ravenswood, retooled their business to meet the needs of the COVID crisis, too.  

When the virus struck, like everyone else, Robert and Sonat noticed hand sanitizer disappearing from shelves. "We started thinking about the fact that we have a still, a necessary tool in making very high proof alcohol," said Sonat, who spoke at a JUF Women's Division event earlier this summer. 

That's when she and Robert, both former academics, dreamt up the win-win idea both to keep their Chicago team of 25 employees intact and to supply sanitizer to frontline workers and first responders. 

So, KOVAL temporarily shifted its production from spirits to sanitizer.  

It was not a simple pivot: Among the challenges, the distillery required permission to make the cleaner because federal law dictates a separation in the license for creating potable versus sanitizing alcohol.  

Yet, within four days, they were up and running, and donating batches of sanitizer to the front lines.  

But they couldn't keep up with demand, so Sonat and Robert started a GoFundMe campaign to increase their sanitizer production without bankrupting their business.  

A slew of companies--including breweries that donated their beer to convert into sanitizer--delivery drivers, and others supported KOVAL's efforts monetarily or through in-kind donations.  

So far, KOVAL has donated more than 4,000 gallons of sanitizer, and plans to maintain production at least through the summer. 

Sonat's Jewish upbringing and values fueled the distillery's decision to give back. "I've been inspired by the teachings of my parents and grandparents and how they probably would have acted in this circumstance," she said. "I feel happy that I grew up with a heritage that talks about doing tzedakah, which is not just charity, but justice."  

Like the proprietors of Platinum and KOVAL, Golden Ceramic Dental Laboratory's Jewish owners Ben and Cydney Topaz wanted to help essential workers, while keeping their own staff employed. With dental offices closed for routine visits at the beginning of the pandemic, the Prospect Heights-based lab--which typically manufactures dental restorations like dentures and crowns--was slowing down. So, the Topazes, a husband and wife team, shifted some of their production to personal protective equipment. 

Since March, they've produced more than 2,000 face shields on their 3D printer, supplying them to hospitals, assisted living facilities, and dental practices open for emergency visits. The company has imported an additional 10,000 face shields from their international supplier in China. The Topazes have managed to keep most of their staff employed.  

"You don't just shut down and leave when you don't make money," said Ben, an Israeli native. "I was raised to be part of a community. We stayed open because we knew people needed us." 

"With a blend of agility, creativity, compassion, and sechel , some Jewish small business owners are salvaging their companies, and the jobs of the people who work for them, while helping pandemic relief efforts at the same time.  "

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