U.S. Representative Patrick McHenry (R-NC 10th District) visited Mount Airy Wednesday to sit down with leaders of a local company making personal protective equipment.
McHenry’s trip to United Sewing Automation was no typical meet-and-greet quick stop on the campaign trail. The 10th District Congressman spent about an hour and a half at the site getting to know the operations and discussing business matters.
Surry County hasn’t been part of McHenry’s territory — Rep. Virginia Foxx’s 5th District has included Surry County — but redistricting has put Surry in McHenry’s district beginning with the next session of Congress.
He said he wanted to come see how some of the principals of Fish Hippie (a locally designed line of apparel) had rapidly converted part of the same building into a sterile room to make face masks in this time of need.
“It’s always impressive to come to Surry County to see the ingenuity and the inventiveness. We’ve got great entrepreneurs that are making American-made PPE to protect our front-line workers,” said McHenry.
“We really need to highlight how quickly they’ve gotten this put up and how intent they’ve been on making sure it’s American sourced. I’m really impressed.”
He said he had been to the business before, “but it’s always trying to learn something new now.”
How did the new business venture come about?
Anne Webb went back almost two decades to show how things have grown between her, her husband Tom and their son Ben, who has been heavily involved in all aspects of their work.
“We have a farm in eastern North Carolina and used the tobacco payout money to plant grapes,” said Anne Webb, who operates Webb Interiors. “So a bunch of farmers in Surry County got together to organize a winery to sell their grapes.”
The grape growing started around 2002, then in 2007 the Webbs took over the wine cooperative and started Old North State Winery in a former hardware store on Main Street downtown.
“Ben was the wine maker and then he became the general manager. Ben had gone back to school at Surry Community College because it has such a great viticulture program.”
Another young man “had some great T-shirt designs, but he was a graphic designer and didn’t have any business background.” A friend brought the designer, Drew Denny, and Ben together.
“Ben had the distribution set up for the wholesale of the wine, so they started working together on the T-shirts. And that evolved.”
The company, called Fish Hippie, started in 2010 and now has different kinds of shirts as well as pants/shorts, hats, socks, watches, tote bags and satchel, belt, can koozies, drink tumblers and more.
Complicating matters more, just a year after the start of Fish Hippie, in 2011 Old North State added a restaurant.
Some of the principals of Fish Hippie planned to start a new operation called United Sewing Automation in an abandoned factory downtown behind Old North State. Before the building could be renovated, a massive fire broke out and destroyed the structure.
Then earlier this year with news coming from all over the country about a shortage in protective gear for hospitals and the public alike, the people behind the U.S.A. idea decided to do something to help.
The Fish Hippie distribution center off U.S. 52 northwest of the city had enough space that an area could be separated to form a “clean room” where sterile face masks can be made.
The production was up and running by August, making three-ply disposable masks with latex-free ear loops and a coated metal bridge piece to conform to the shape of the nose.
According to the company, the masks are FDA tested and surgical grade, made using materials sourced from Georgia, Connecticut and Indiana.