As the state's stay-at-home order is slowly lifted, more businesses are shifting toward selling cleaning supplies and personal protection equipment to meet surging demand for the phase one reopening of the economy after two months in lockdown mode. 

Lyons Specialty Co., a nearly 100-year-old Port Allen wholesale grocery distributor, has carved out a niche supplying convenience stores with products such as candy, cigarettes and cosmetics. Chief Executive Officer Hugh Raetszsch Jr. said suppliers started contacting his company in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, offering to sell him cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

“One thing led to another and we were sourcing these products,” he said. Lyons set up a website so stores could order the items.

The website soon got the attention of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which was looking to come up with its own way of sourcing cleaning supplies and protective gear for local businesses as they re-emerge.

BRAC President and CEO Adam Knapp said members were telling him the inability to get protective gear was threatening the chances of businesses reopening safely. BRAC had done a needs survey of members that found 72% had not purchased equipment, and were worried about the supply chain.

Lyons and BRAC teamed up to determine where they could constantly find items.

“The most difficult thing to get consistently is alcohol wipes or gloves, but we’ve been pretty successful in getting them when we need them,” Raetzch said.

BRAC taps local wholesale supplier for personal protective equipment marketplace

Last week, BRAC and Lyons launched the PPE Marketplace at brac.org/ppe/. Customers can go on the site to order items such as disposable sanitary masks, N95 masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes, sanitizing towels and disinfectant. They pay for the products and arrange a pickup time the next day. Customers drive up to the Lyons warehouse in Port Allen for a hands-free pickup. On Tuesday, Raetzch said Lyons filled 75 orders, with pickup times set for every 5 minutes. 

Rob Wise is the owner and chief executive officer of ITinspired, a local computer support company whose clients include a hospital and some state agencies. Wise said he started “freaking out” a few weeks ago, when he started ordering protective gear and sanitizer for his business and his Amazon orders were canceled or delayed.

“I needed things in the short term, so I needed them shipped fast,” he said.

When Wise found out about the PPE Marketplace, he quickly placed an order for gloves and alcohol wipes.

“I picked them up at 8:10 a.m. the next day,” he said. He’s since placed a second order for disposable masks and hand sanitizer. “That’s going to be our life for a little while,” he said.

Having regular access to a reliable source of protective gear has eased his mind, Wise said. ITinspired’s 18 employees are still working remotely and won’t go to a site unless they absolutely have to be there. “But I feel like we have step one done, for phase one,” he said.

For some businesses, it's critical that they have access to the specialized product that fits their need. Dr. Danielle Causey, a local dentist, said getting protective gear is still an issue for her. Causey has two businesses: the Dental Care Group in Prairieville and Causey Med Aesthetic, a medical spa in Baton Rouge that offers skin treatments and weight loss services.

In the early days of the pandemic, Causey said she donated as much protective gear as she could to local hospitals.

“We were all happy to do it,” she said, but now she’s down to a bare-bones supply, and getting medical quality gloves and masks is difficult.

“Things are 10 times more expensive,” she said. Causey has been forced to go outside of her normal suppliers, so she doesn’t know what quality the merchandise she gets will be.

To make things more difficult, she said new guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mandate that she wear more protective gear and change it more frequently. Before, when she was working in her dental clinic, she would wear the same gown and mask throughout the day. “Now, we have to change everything we have on for every new patient, so we’re going through a lot more,” she said.

Lyons isn't the only business helping with general businesses' needs. Marchands, a Gonzales hardware store, has significantly increased its cleaning supply and protective gear selection

The store sold cleaning supplies, gloves and masks for years, but demand has increased during the coronavirus pandemic.

So the business asked existing suppliers for more product for its shelves. It’s been roughly 100 times more popular as individuals prepare and businesses look for supplies to reopen, said Brentley Marchand, general manager.

“Demand is through the roof for hand sanitizer, disinfectants, masks and gloves,” he said. “The most difficult thing to get has been the N95 masks.”

So the company found an alternative that’s also approved by the FDA, which are KN95 masks.

“That’s really helped out a lot of businesses in the area,” he said.

Personal protection shields, which look like a clear welders helmet, are popular for some businesses because most masks muffle the voice of individuals, he said.

Marchands has also been installing custom plexiglass barriers for banks, offices, insurance agencies and grocery stores in recent weeks.

Marchands has a flooring and bath store and a picture framing shop nearby that’s been closed for weeks. So employees from those businesses now work in the hardware store. Still, the sales of personal protection equipment hasn’t been enough to cover the losses at the other businesses, he said.

“We were able to pull resources from those businesses to keep as many people working as we could. … it didn’t quite balance out but it has allowed us to get through this difficult time,” he said.

Kevin Lazaroe is the owner of Rustic House Furniture, which is based in Covington and has locations in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Madisonville. In November, one of the Chinese manufacturers he buys furniture from was ordered by the government to start making protective gear in response to the pandemic. In February, that manufacturer offered to sell Lazaroe some KN95 masks. At first, he was reluctant to buy the masks. But Lazaroe said he “got desperate” when his stores were ordered to close March 23 as part of the governor’s stay-at-home order.

“Our masks arrived a week or two later, which was at the right time, because hardly anybody had anything,” he said. He couldn’t keep pace with the initial demand.

In April, Lazaroe said he sold $450,000 worth of masks. That was a little more than what his furniture stores normally bring in, although he says the profit margins are not as good. The money has been enough to keep his 22 employees working.

But Lazaroe said he’s hit another obstacle. He has 80,000 masks he can’t sell and another 60,000 on the way from China.

“There’s no social media allowing you to advertise PPE equipment,” he said. “Now businesses are trying to reopen and people don’t know where they can get masks.”


Email Timothy Boone at tboone@theadvocate.com.