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From Mead to Hand Sanitizer: NC State Alumnus Transforms Business During Pandemic

Portrait of James Boicourt

Look for the helpers — it’s a phrase we hear time and time again during moments of crisis. Doctors, nurses, first responders, truckers, grocery store workers — just some of the many helpers we’re thankful for during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our Pack is stepping up too. Some alumni are working on the front lines. Others, like James Boicourt (Political Science ‘06), are transforming their businesses to meet the needs of their communities.

Boicourt, owner of Charm City Meadworks in Baltimore, recently revamped his mead business to produce hand sanitizer for hospitals, municipal workers and other local groups. We caught up with Boicourt to learn more about his unexpected venture and the importance of working together.

man pumps hand sanitizer into bottle
With the help of local businesses, Charm City Meadworks is pumping out hand sanitizer for hospitals, municipal workers and other Baltimore groups.

Tell us a little bit about your business. 

Charm City Meadworks (CCMW) is really the result of a hobby that started with taking a few classes in beekeeping at NC State, first with the late John Ambrose and then with David Tarpy. After years of beekeeping and homebrewing mead, we finally moved forward with CCMW in early 2014. We have quickly grown to be one of the largest producers of mead in the country. Our focus is on light, dryer, more refreshing meads for everyday enjoyment. 

How have operations changed since the COVID-19 pandemic?

Initially, when things started becoming clear that it was going to have a serious impact weeks ago, I began preparing for the possible worst case scenario of having to temporarily shutter the business. At that time, it was hard to know exactly what would happen. The thought was if the staff took a pay cut and I took on some debt, we could weather the storm if need be. I called our friends at Mount Royal Soap Company to discuss moving forward with a hand sanitizer collaboration we had discussed a couple weeks before. After deciding to move forward, the mayor’s office called and asked if we were capable of doing it, as city services were highly in need. Since then, we’ve pivoted hard to get a totally new packaging line running. We’ve created a new COVID-19 set of safety and PPE protocols and added shifts to deal with the additional workload. We’re now moving more sanitizer out the door every week than mead.

During all of this, I’ve had to work from home due to being at high risk with a chronic lung condition, along with my wife, who is pregnant and due in two months. We don’t expect to leave the house until our daughter decides it’s time for her to arrive. It’s hard to say what hasn’t changed in our business operations.

cans of mead sit next to boxes of hand sanitizer
Boicourt says his company is now moving more hand sanitizer out the door every week than mead.

What has been the biggest challenge? 

Pivoting a business and making major changes when the footing changes every day. At first, it wasn’t clear if alcohol producers or liquor stores would be considered nonessential. My concern was that we’d end up sitting on expensive ingredients and packaging but no sanitizer. Despite applying for every Small Business Administration (SBA) and state relief program within hours of them coming available, we still haven’t seen a single dollar. Our core business is down 50%.

Where is the hand sanitizer you’re now producing being distributed?

We’re focusing our efforts locally with city services, hospitals and other institutions in need. As we ramp up capacity, some should be available on Mount Royal Soap Company’s website for purchase in both retail and wholesale quantities. 

You’re collaborating with other local businesses on this project. How important is it for people to support local during this time? 

Small businesses make up 99.7% of U.S. employers and account for nearly 50% of private sector jobs. Our employees are like family, and they pay rent, mortgages and bills with their wages. If you want to prevent economic collapse, support local. These businesses need to be there as employers after this, or the whole system will fall apart. 

people wipe down bottles of hand sanitizer using gloves
The company created a new COVID-19 set of safety and PPE protocols and added shifts to help deal with the workload.

What inspired you to help those in need? 

We work hard during normal times to be a strong community partner and do everything to help our neighborhood and city. It’s rewarding, and when the opportunity to do something like this in a time of need arises, it’s a no brainer. 

What has been the response from the community?

People are really looking for positive things to be excited about at a time like this, and it’s been pretty amazing watching the number of collaborative projects that have come together during this crisis. The reception has been pretty exceptional. I’m very happy to say it’s not just what we’re up to, but what a lot of other local businesses and creators are doing to help get us through this that makes me excited every day. 

What would you tell other members of the Wolfpack who want to help during this time?

What do you have to lose? We’re all in this together. Many hands make light work, and if you have any chance to get some positive momentum during this, it will be a good thing. 

This post was originally published in College of Humanities and Social Sciences.