California marijuana producer switches Santa Rosa factory to making hand sanitizer

Cheriene Griffith, director of operations, left, and cannabis baker Dan Nguyen demo a dry run of hand sanitizer production at The Galley cannabis production facility in Santa Rosa, California, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The company is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by starting production of “Stop & Sanitize” hand sanitizer spray in their Photo: Ramin Rahimian / Special to The Chronicle

The Galley was on pace to open a state-of-the-art, 8,600-square-foot manufacturing and production facility for cannabis products at the end of this month in Santa Rosa.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.

Amid that disorder, the Galley shifted to making hand sanitizer to be distributed to hospitals, grocery and drugstores — some sold for $4.75 a bottle, some donated.

“It’s very apparent that there’s something much bigger than ourselves going on here,” Director of Operations Cheriene Griffith said. “This is almost back to what people think about the World War II times. This is our civic and patriotic duty. This is what you do. In a time of crisis, you have to step up and help your fellow citizens.”

By the end of the week, The Galley will run its first line of 25,000 four-ounce bottles of Stop and Sanitize. Other Bay Area businesses are helping out: CGA Packaging in Livermore has donated the labels on the bottles, and Petaluma software maker Wherefour is crunching data for the project.

With health officials recommending frequent handwashing and the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer when sinks and water aren’t available, demand for the convenient product is high.

Many stores have run low. Gojo, the maker of the popular Purell brand, has increased production, and even sought exemptions from tariffs so it can import more plastic pumps from China.

The Galley had its own challenges finding materials — but it already had a formulation specialist on staff and high-end equipment in a commercial kitchen, with rooms devoted to edibles, topicals, candy and chocolates.

Industrial alcohols are already used to extract specific chemicals from marijuana plants. It’s also a basic ingredient in hand sanitizer. Using connections in the industry, the Galley found enough ethanol and isopropyl alcohol for the first run, and got approvals to handle the volatile liquids from the local Fire Department.

Finding the 4-ounce bottles took about a week. It’s considering switching to 8-ounce refill bottles, which are easier to obtain, for the next run.

It’s now unclear when the cannabis portion of the business will get off the ground. In the meantime, eight employees have been hired to produce hand sanitizer, with 500 from every set being donating to health care organizations.

“We were all dumbfounded and scared” by the pandemic, said Annie Holman, The Galley’s cofounder and chief marketing officer. “I probably have 700 emails on the subject (of shifting production) and had to start asking people to resend stuff,” she added.

Holman had a successful graphic design company for nearly 30 years and started the award-winning Derby Bakery in 2016. Two years later, she was at a trade show when someone approached her about turning North Coast Fisheries into a cannabis facility. Holman set out to renovate the seafood processing facility for the burgeoning cannabis business, which was on the cusp of legalizing retail sales.

She raised $3 million. Some of how that funding was put to use is evident in the facility’s details. Besides the industrial fixtures, there is a common area with two shipping containers connected by a deck, refurbished furniture from the Alameda flea market and a barbecue grill.

“At our very first meeting, I asked people to name five things they wanted to get from working here,” Holman said. “Mine was: ‘Leave your mark.’

“This will be our mark. It has deferred everyone’s anxieties and fears, because we have something to work on every day. It gives everybody a purpose and makes everybody’s heart feel good.”

Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron

Rusty Simmons San Francisco