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Iowa-made ingenuity

Erin & Zach
Henry County Farm Bureau members Zach and Erin Griebahn wear the masks made and printed at Gray Barn Industries in Mount Pleasant. Zach got the idea to turn paper napkins into masks to meet the changing needs of their customers. PHOTO BY GARY FANDEL
Gray Barn Industries in Mount Pleasant offers face masks from napkins to keep their small town printing business running.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to im­­pact Iowans, we are learning to adapt to what might be a “new normal” well into the foreseeable future.   

This is particularly the case for small business owners, as they have been impacted in many different ways by a cascade of lockdowns, closures and changes in consumer spending. 

Zach Griebahn, who is president of Gray Barn Industries (https://graybarn.co/) in Mount Pleasant, has had a front row seat for all of this while running a business started by his parents in 1986. 

Gray Barn Industries began as a balloon printing operation but has evolved over the years to meet the changing demands of the marketplace. Today, the company provides clients with an assortment of custom-printed items, like balloons, cups, napkins and T-shirts. They also offer engraving services and have a signage company, but the pandemic has had an impact on business. 

This dynamic changed, though, when Griebahn realized there was another potential use for the hundreds of thousands of paper napkins sitting in their warehouse. 

“I was speaking to a colleague in the industry about the pandemic back in mid-March, and he was talking about getting face masks from China,” explained Griebahn. “He was trying to order one million, three-ply face masks and when he said this my ears perked up because I knew we had a three-ply napkin product.” 

After a little bit of research, Griebahn discovered the material used in the three-ply, disposable surgical masks was the same as the material used by their napkin supplier. An idea was born! 

“We took a few napkins home and brainstormed for about 30 minutes to develop a very simple fold and design of the material,” stated Griebahn. “We then rushed back to the factory and played around with staplers, jigs, pricing and supply and finally came up with a product that is very simple to make and super cheap.”  

Griebahn said he made a final call to his supplier to make sure there was an ample supply of napkins and capacity for future production. Once this was confirmed, he made the decision to add face masks to the product mix offered by Gray Barn Industries.  

“We launched mask making on March 25, and within one hour, we were ranking seventh out of 1,300 products in our industry and we were off to the races. We have now sold over 225,000 masks,” said Griebahn. 
 
The family has has made numerous operational changes over the life of the business, so the shift to making masks was normal. Griebahn's biggest concern was how they could successfully scale the effort and make it efficient very quickly.

“Every day we made a slight change to speed things up. The big shift came when I had a dream in the middle of the night for a table to assemble these faster,” explained Griebahn. “I popped out of bed and could not find anything to draw on, so I tore apart a cereal box and used a broken pencil to sketch out the tables we use today.”  

His dream-induced brainstorm ended up being beneficial, as Griebahn said the ergonomic adjustments changed their assembly capacity from 4,000 masks per day to 10,000 per day using the same staff. So with hospitals locally and nationally ordering, and lots of inquiries now coming from schools and companies about large quantity orders, Griebahn knows he needs to maximize operational efficiencies and make as many masks as he can.   

“If the country is moving towards mandating use and someone shows up at your business, instead of turning them away you could give them an inexpensive mask to keep commerce open. That is the type of mask we are providing,” said Griebahn, who indicated there is a big demand for 100% American-made products right now. “Lots of people keep reordering for personal use because it is light, easy on your head and breathable, as where a lot of the cloth masks are either ineffective or difficult to breath in.”
 
Although everything is going good right now, Griebahn is realistic and knows there will be a life­span to what they are doing. This is why he said they are keeping it “simple, lean and cost effective” and focusing on offering a price point that allows them to stay open, yet also offer other businesses a product they need at an affordable price.  

“I have tried to be very upfront and open about the development and testing of this product and our motivations. First, we want to help keep businesses operating, because our economy is on the verge of collapse. Second, we want to give people an affordable option for a disposable, 100 percent American-made face mask. And finally, we want to keep our staff employed so they can pay their bills, feed their families and have a sense of normalcy while the ink is drying on the history pages,” said Griebahn.

Having that proverbial “light bulb moment” regarding a supply of unused napkins has worked out well for Griebahn and Gray Barn Industries from a business standpoint, but there is also a lot of pride in what they have accomplished. 
   

“We are a second generation, family-owned business in a rural town in Iowa making one of the top two most demanded items in the world right now,” offered Griebahn. “We make a more effective face mask faster and cheaper than any other domestic operation that I have seen and researched, so I want people to know we have an amazing team that comes to work and wants to make a difference.”

Yontz is a freelance writer from Urbandale. 



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