From pastries to hand sanitizer: one family on US virus front line

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by Delphine Touitou

At the Picou family’s factory in Laurel, Maryland outside the US capital, the only workshop that is buzzing is usually reserved for making jams for baking. Now, it’s churning out hand sanitizer.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, PastryStar — founded stateside in 1986 — made a wide array of products for high-end baking, supplying everything from chic restaurants to cruise lines.

But since the outbreak of the deadly virus, employees have stored the sacks of sugar, canisters of caramel glaze and giant cans of almond paste in favor of isopropyl alcohol and glycerin.

Hand sanitizer is in high demand, and the Picou family is answering the call to public service.

“For us, it’s really easy to make,” says Mireille Picou, a French woman who started PastryStar with her husband.

The company got approval from the US Food and Drug Administration for its sanitizer formula in “less than two weeks,” she explained.

The biggest issue was finding the right bottles and caps. Another problem was sourcing the chemicals — prices for sanitizer components rose fourfold as the crisis took hold.

Of course, the Picou family is not changing its business model. Making sanitizer is just temporary — a way to keep the company afloat as demand for their regular products has dried up.

They’ve sold at least 4,500 liter bottles of the sanitizer in two weeks. But demand from business owners could skyrocket as more and more US states move towards reopening.

Sales in free fall

The start of 2020 was good for PastryStar. By late February and even early March, just before the virus crisis exploded, the company’s sales were up 35 percent — a record.

That boon came thanks to cruise lines — a major client for the Picou family — high-end supermarkets such as Whole Foods, and wholesale distributor Sysco, which was selling PastryStar products to fine restaurants across the United States.

But in mid-March, everything came to a crashing halt when strict anti-virus lockdown measures were put in place.

“Sales bottomed out and were nearly zero for three to four weeks,” said 27-year-old Antonin Picou, who took over the day-to-day operations of the family business about a year ago.

“We’ve been through crises before — 9/11, (Hurricane) Katrina, the Great Recession — but never have we seen nearly our entire business shut down from one day to the next,” said Mireille, his mother.

The family gathered around a table to discuss the future, Antonin recounted.

“And we said that we had to either resign ourselves to shutting down, or stay open and innovate to be able to keep our employees working,” he said.

After that meeting, the company created its “Batch and Bake” concept, which will launch in the next two weeks — boxes of ingredients that home chefs can use to make pastries.

The Picous hope to capitalize on a trend that has emerged during the crisis — cooking and baking at home as a way to educate and amuse children who are no longer going to school.

Bakery boxes

Christine Giegerich, a 30-year-old pastry chef at PastryStar, is working in her lab to put the finishing touches on the do-it-yourself product.

“We are trying to be a little bit more creative to reach everyday people instead of just big customers,” she explains.

The cardboard boxes contain pre-measured ingredients, shipped in a special container to maintain freshness, so that home bakers can make cakes, scones, cookies and breads.

All the customer has to do is follow the recipe devised by Giegerich.

The blonde chef, who wears a face mask at work, says the recipes have been tested in real-life conditions at home — not just made in a high-end oven with professional-grade utensils.

The boxes may find a niche, especially when flour has become hard to come by in some supermarkets.

“E-commerce will be a first for us,” says Antonin Picou, who is an engineer by training.

PastryStar has made 1,000 bakery boxes to begin with — 100 each of 10 varieties.

“We’re targeting city dwellers who have traveled, who have had experienced French pastry,” he says, noting that he sees this crisis as an opportunity for his company to evolve.

“There have been demoralizing moments” during the crisis, he admits.

The future for his employees is indeed not certain, and some are worried. Several have been forced to stay home in quarantine after displaying symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

But the Picou family and its team remain optimistic that better days are ahead.

“The good thing about food manufacturing is — people always need to eat,” Giegerich says with a smile.

“And people are always like excited about food, no matter what’s going on.” (AFP)

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