When the coronavirus pandemic hit California, Tovey Giezentanner wanted to do something. The Chico native settled on making face coverings to help control the spread, but his ambition went beyond sitting at a sewing machine and repurposing fabric scraps. He decided to open a face-mask factory, Salus Supply, in Chico and is now in the process of setting up equipment and gathering the materials to crank out 100,000 “non-medical, source-control face masks” per day. In the interim, he’s ordered already-made masks that he’s been re-selling from his website (salussupply.com) until production begins. It’s an ambitious endeavor, especially considering the fact that Giezentanner works as a senior counselor at a public relations firm in Sacramento, but switching vocational gears is nothing new to the entrepreneur.
Have you worked in manufacturing before?
I have not. Typically, folks go into a field and they stay in that field. For me, my career path is totally different. I started in the Army, went to Chico State, didn’t graduate, went into politics in Sacramento as a district director before going into public affairs and then I ran a ranch.
Yeah, it was a rice ranch in Yolo county called Conaway Ranch. But when we sold it in 2010, I was like, “Well, what do we do now?” I had a friend doing real estate development work in San Francisco at the time, so I went and got a local project approved with them. Since then, I’ve done apartment development for others and for myself in Chico. I kind of feel like although I haven’t done manufacturing specifically, I do have experience figuring out problems and following through. Everything you do gives you a chance to learn. You have to develop skills and figure out how to use them later on. So again, it looks like I’m a fish out of water with this mask thing—and I am—but after all the stuff I’ve done it seems so easy and natural. You just gotta keep learning.
What made you choose mask-making?
As the pandemic started, I asked myself, “What am I gonna do, sit here with all this anxiety or am I gonna do something to help?” I felt like this existential threat, but I had to do something. Masks was one option.
What kind of masks do you make?
So, one bucket of masks is N95 [respirators] and surgical masks. Those are made to protect the wearer. The other bucket of masks is the kind I make. It’s a mask to protect you from me. Source control. They slow the spread of the virus. In China, they call them courtesy masks. I was going to call mine “empathy masks” but I thought, “Geez Louise, I don’t want to be too preachy.” So, I ended up naming it after the Roman goddess of health and wellness. I started with the idea of making surgical masks but it’s too complicated and the raw materials are too hard to produce. I thought I could create a non-woven, really good mask at a low cost point if I could buy a machine. We looked at hemp material at first because it could be locally sourced, but it’s tough. It might still happen, but you need a bunch of people to process it—like 500 people. That wasn’t gonna work.
Have you started production yet?
We’re about to. I ordered a bunch of the same masks we’ll be making here to sell while we were waiting for the machine to get here. Prices are competitive now but they’ll be even cheaper with the machine. Another thing is, with global demand going up, the materials have been crazy. Meltblown fabric is the gold right now of PPE [personal protective equipment]. The price for one ton of that fabric went from $5,500 to $96,000 once all this started.
Are the masks you ordered available now?
Yeah, I’ll drop masks off to whoever. I love reconnecting with people in Chico. My parents moved up in ’63 to start the Neighborhood Church.
How do you anticipate demand playing out?
I think there’s a six-to-nine-month window where there will be demand that can’t be met by supply. During that time, I should sell enough to make back what I spent and get people paid. Basically break even. We’ll see where it goes. I really don’t know. Obviously there’s self interest—I want to sell a lot of masks at a cheap price—but I think we can help Northern California have the lowest cost of really high-quality masks that other places in the country won’t have. That makes me feel good.