COVID-19 shutdowns have hammered demand for Insinger Machine Co.‘s commercial dishwashers used in restaurants and other hospitality settings. That forced the venerable Philadelphia company to get creative.

Insinger’s solution is a foot-powered dispenser of hand sanitizers, which it developed over the last six weeks. The fifth-generation family business delivered six of those units to the Franklin Institute just before the museum opened last week.

“We’ve had to pivot just like everyone else because of COVID,” said Ari Cantor, president of the firm with 50 employees in Tacony. The jumping-off point for Insinger’s engineers was that the company already makes sanitizing equipment.

“We make dishwashers. We have nozzles. We have dish-washing-chemical pumps,” Cantor said. “What if we just make those mechanical? We were able to take regular detergent pumps, modify them so they squirt exactly three cubic centimeters,” Cantor said.

Cantor estimated last week that Insinger had sold 20 to 30 of the 36-inch-tall stainless steel devices, and has orders for 44 from a restaurant chain that uses its dishwashers. It has another order for about 100 of what it calls Insinger Outposts. The product lists for $995 but can be had for less in a bulk order.

“We’re hoping this can go from the tens to the hundreds to the thousands,” said Cantor, 37, who worked on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs before joining the family firm 11 years ago. He said Insinger does not disclose annual revenue. Before the pandemic, Insinger employed close to 60.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many manufacturers to switch to products in demand during the crisis. This is true even for manufacturers like Insinger that were allowed to remain open after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all nonessential businesses to stop on-site operations unless they could get a waiver.

Insinger Machine Co. has sold six of its new foot-operated dispenser of hand sanitizer to the Franklin Institute. One of the devices is shown here outside a museum entrance.
Insinger Machine Co.
Insinger Machine Co. has sold six of its new foot-operated dispenser of hand sanitizer to the Franklin Institute. One of the devices is shown here outside a museum entrance.

Distillers started making hand sanitizer. Businesses that could sew turned to making face masks and gowns both as a way to help the pandemic response and have things for workers to do.

What Insinger did is different because its dispensers are durable goods, rather than consumables, said David N. Taylor, president and chief executive of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association.

“This is a wonderful example of a manufacturing employer scrambling to reorganize, to refocus, and identify a product people need that could be made using the gear they have,” Taylor said. “If circumstances prevent you from doing what you’ve always done, then you have to adapt. This is a wonderful story.”

Jim Kelly uses the press brake operator to form the foot-powered hand sanitizer machines that Insinger Machine Co. makes at their Talcony headquarters in Philadelphia.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Jim Kelly uses the press brake operator to form the foot-powered hand sanitizer machines that Insinger Machine Co. makes at their Talcony headquarters in Philadelphia.

Other companies from around the country in very different industries have made a similar shift into hand-sanitizer dispensers. GP Reeves, in Holland, Mich., typically makes dispensers for grease, oil, sealant, and adhesives. It started making touchless sanitizer dispensers, according to the Holland Sentinel. In Holly Hill, Fla., Bob’s Space Racers, which manufactures the Whac-a-Mole arcade game, came out with a foot-operated dispenser that is freestanding like the one by Insinger.

Insinger, founded in 1893, used modern means to help kick off sales of its new product.

“We ran a really inexpensive Instagram ad. I think we paid maybe $100 to run an ad for like seven days,” targeting only the Philadelphia area, Cantor said.

That’s how the Franklin Institute found out about it, said Rich Rabena, the museum’s senior vice president of operations. Rabena said he liked that Insinger is a local company, that the device is made of durable stainless steel, and that it holds a gallon of liquid, far more than the amount held by the common plastic units that must be refilled with small bags of proprietary hand sanitizer.

Visitors to the Franklin Institute are using Insinger’s devices, which display the Franklin Institute logo, Rabena said. “I think it’s a little bit of a novelty because it’s foot-operated.”

Like Taylor, the manufacturing expert, Rabena was also struck by the fact that Insinger went a step further than most manufacturers in its product shift amid COVID-19.

“What a great story that they would turn their attention to manufacturing” a piece of equipment like the dispenser “and do a nice job with it,” he said.