Two Reading brothers have stepped up to help in the fight against COVID-19 by using their business, originally designed to produce handcrafted leather goods, to now produce Personal Protective Equipment.
Jason and Chris Angelini, who both graduated from Reading Memorial High School (Jason in 2007 and Chris in 2006), started a business several years ago called American Bench Craft (located in Wilmington) with a simple mission: to redesign products people use every day with an emphasis on simplicity. But since the coronavirus pandemic struck, the brothers took on a new challenge: to help create PPE including masks, gloves and face shields.
“We had wanted to get into the fight pretty much since the beginning, but weren't sure how,” said Chris Angelini via email last week. “Then a few weeks ago, another New England-based manufacturer, American Roots of Westbrook, ME, asked us if we'd be willing to offer up our supply chain for additional resources and materials as well as our die-cutting abilities to keep up with their own demand for PPE, which we were all-to-happy to do.”
Chris continued, noting how high demand for PPE has become since the crisis started.
“From there it really just snowballed as demand is so high right now and supply is unreliable and inconsistent to say the least. There's also a lot of misinformation going around that we're working to correct regarding manufacturing capabilities, inefficiencies and supply.”
The bothers have been able to both produce PPE for those who need it and continue to fill orders for their customers for graduation, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day because, as Chris noted, their ecommerce store has remained open.
In 2014, the brothers spoke to The Daily Times Chronicle about their new business venture: “Products today just aren’t designed to last,” Jason Angelini told the paper. “I wanted to recreate some of the products we use every day so that they would not wear out after a year of use.”
With that kind of business model, to make products that last, the brothers have the formula to create the right kind of PPE from which those on the front line can really benefit. A mask that falls apart or can’t be worn again, gloves that rip or tear or face shields that break down don’t help anybody protect themselves from the virus.
Of course, the coronavirus impacted the Angelini’s business in similar ways most people have suffered: they lost 30 percent of their business. Fortunately for the RMHS graduates, being an ecommerce store, they didn’t have to close storefronts or lay off employees.
The two brothers realized they could hang in there, keep producing for their customers and they would survive until the pandemic ended and things returned, somewhat, to normalcy. Instead, they heard the call from their friends Ben and Whitney Waxman who co-founded American Roots in Maine and began producing necessary equipment.
“Demand for PPE is still high,” Chris said, “and it's our hope that between the PPE, practicing social distancing and other health and safety measures people can participate in every day, we'll be able to get this pandemic under control shortly and return to doing what we've always been doing: manufacturing heavy duty and amazing quality leather goods, gear, gifts and accessories.”
No one knows exactly when things can return to “normal” or what that will even look like. Therefore, it’s hard to say exactly when the brothers can get back to focusing on making quality leather goods. Until then, they’ll continue to mass produce needed PPE while also maintaining social distancing and keeping their employees safe.
“We gave everyone the option of working from home, and if not possible, taking time off from the start of the pandemic if they felt unsafe, that they were vulnerable or someone close to them may be especially vulnerable from the symptoms caused by COVID-19,” Chris stated.
He added how “over the past couple months, just about everyone has been gradually coming back to work, as long as they don't mind wearing face masks, gloves, etc. to ensure safety. We've also staggered hours/shifts and we're super fortunate that we have an exceptionally large space (almost 4,000 sf) and there are only a handful of us or fewer ever working at the same time, so it's been fairly easy for us to practice social distancing while at work, compared to other companies which have much tighter quarters.”
This, of course, helps the brothers continue making equipment, such as masks, which Chris said are “non-medical grade and can be used by anyone/everyone to help reduce the spread of the virus.”
Governor Charlie Baker has mandated everyone must wear a mask/face covering when out in public and not able to stay six feet apart. Most businesses have a similar mandate, especially grocery stores such as Market Basket and Stop & Shop.
“This will be especially important as people return to work or interact closely with one another again,” Chris added. “The shields are for medical workers and other frontline workers in hospitals, on construction sites, etc.”
With their equipment, Chris said his company can focus on manufacturing filters.
“We are die-cutting the filters, which is our specialty and what our shop was already set up to do (many of our leather goods are die-cut, so we already had the machinery in house, we just needed to get tooling to switch to die-cutting PPE, which we were able to get extremely quickly). We are sourcing the raw materials and components for other PPE (shields, gowns, etc.) in a collaborative effort with a bunch of other local, small businesses.”
It’s this team effort he described that will help Massachusetts get past the crisis. It’s also Republicans and Democrats working together in the State House to pass important legislation that allows businesses like American Bench Craft to remain open and able to help.
Because of this, Chris said they’re able to “produce hundreds of thousands of filters a week. The supply chain we’ve helped organize is actually capable of producing thousands of shields, filters, masks, gowns, door openers and more per week, which has been hugely significant.”
Chris’ and Jason’s hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Neighbor and friend of the family, Brenda Norton, said, “I could write a book about this family.”
She added, “When they were young kids, they would show up after a snow storm and shovel the walks and driveway having never been asked - when offered payment for their effort they would always refuse saying that their parents just wanted them to be ‘Good Neighbors.’ They were taught well and they are still being good neighbors only on a bigger scale.”
Norton noted how thankful she is to know the brothers “and continue to be a part of their lives. They are the best of the best.”
According to Norton, Jason and Chris each have two daughters, a toddler and a “very recent newborn.”
While it’s clear the desire to help was instilled in the brothers at a young age, it has continued through Jason serving for six years in the Army National Guard in the Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Defense Unit and both want to assist in the fight against COVID-19.