Tissue Plus was just ramping up its production of toilet paper, napkins and other paper products in March when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country, and demand for toilet paper skyrocketed overnight.
The Bangor company’s original plan was to supply those products to commercial customers such as hotels, airports and offices — the very types of places that have had to shut down or scale back during the pandemic.
So the newly opened factory quickly changed course, working night and day to produce toilet paper that it could provide to retailers and directly to consumers through a mail-order business that now has customers across 40 states, according to company owner Marc Cooper.
The quick pivot was the start to a wild year for the factory off Outer Hammond Street, as the pandemic changed the mix of paper products consumers were demanding — and the business opportunities available to the startup business.
The sky-high demand for toilet paper waned throughout the spring, but Tissue Plus then helped fill another niche that had taken on great importance as the respiratory virus kept spreading across the country: making sanitary wipes.
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Rather than producing the wipes on its own, Tissue Plus was a link in the supply chain. It received larger rolls of paper from factories, cut them down in the specified sizes and shapes, and then supplied them to the companies that would soak them in disinfecting chemicals and stick them into the cylindrical containers seen in stores.
Tissue Plus purchased more machines to handle that contract work in Bangor, and it also increased its output through partnerships with other factories in New York, Rhode Island and Oregon. For several months, the company ran its machines at all hours of the day to keep up with the new demand.
“That segment exploded, too,” Cooper said. “We basically changed our entire business.”
Only in recent months has that demand slowed and the company been able to focus more on the necessary work of renovating its building on Hildreth Street, which had few working amenities when Tissue Plus formed in the summer of 2019.
Those basic renovations were hard to complete as the operation worked on expanding during its “banner” first year, according to Cooper.
The company is now hoping to continue with its original business plan of providing finished paper goods to industrial and commercial customers — such as hotels, airports and hospitals — while also continuing to sell products directly to consumers.
The pandemic was an unexpected boost for Tissue Plus after it opened earlier this year. Since March, the company has adapted to shifting changes in demand and is pivoting itself for the future. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP
But that will depend on the company securing more funding, according to Cooper. It has invested all the profits from this year back into the business, he said, and it has also received two loans totaling millions in dollars from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
“I still haven’t taken a paycheck in two years,” he said.
Tissue Plus is now working with the city of Bangor to bring the building up to code as it seeks a third loan, which would help grow its staff from the 20 people now working there and allow it to bring more products to market. He noted that another business challenge this past year has been elevated shipping costs.
The business hopes that it’ll be able to meet the pent-up demand for paper products in public places once the pandemic starts to recede, and Americans are more freely able to venture out into public spaces.
“We see that away-from-home market coming back as people are able to travel more and go back to the office,” Cooper said. “We want to be ready when that happens.”