HOUSTON — The moment Princess Cruises canceled their order, the Kammerman family knew the coronavirus was going to be a calamity for the world and their linens business.
Royal Caribbean was the next to cancel. Then Marriott. Soon, dozens of longtime hospitality customers of the family-owned company backed out of their orders as the number of COVID-19 cases spread across the globe and people retreated into their homes.
“That’s when we knew we were in big trouble,” said Glenn Kammerman, president of Gourmet Table Skirts & Linens, one of the last U.S.-based textile manufacturers. “We had to get creative because the pipeline was drying up.”
Like many small businesses around the country, the future of Gourmet Table Skirts & Linens was in peril because of the coronavirus and its related shutdowns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Americans not to board cruise ships, one of the company’s biggest clients. Millions under stay-at-home orders were not checking into hotels, and bans on large gatherings and pleas for social distancing meant the company’s tablecloths and napkins were no longer being used at weddings, meetings and banquets.
For the first time in decades, the cacophony inside the Kammermans’ cavernous southwest Houston factory went quiet. Giant rolls of polyester and cotton fabric were still in plastic. Sewing machines no longer buzzed. The work bell clanged for no one as most of the company’s 85 workers — largely immigrants — were cloistered under a stay-at-home order issued by Harris County.
But every unraveling thread has its mends in the case of the Kammermans.
Days of nonstop news coverage about the looming shortages in personal protective equipment at the nation’s hospitals gave the family an idea. Over text messages last week, Kammerman, his sales director son, Howard, account executive daughter, Sarah Gayle, and head designer, Hilda Garcia, batted around ideas for a breathable, washable, hygienic, medical face mask.
If people were crafting masks in their living rooms, the Kammermans thought, how much more could they do in their 43,000 square-foot factory? Garcia took scraps of fabric home on the weekend to start on a prototype — a 100 percent cotton mask with elastic bands.
Howard Kammerman asked a friend who owns four urgent-care facilities in the Houston area to review the design. By Tuesday, doctors wanted 500 for the first order.
“This won’t completely offset our losses,” he said, adding the masks are priced at $2.25 each. “But it’s a way to keep our workers employed and produce something that fills a gap and is desperately needed.”
Glenn Kammerman has had to reinvent himself and his business more than once. His family had long been in the textile business, making uniforms for hotel workers, when he was drafted for the Vietnam War in his 20s. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, supporting B-52 bomber missions in Southeast Asia.
When he returned to Houston in 1971, Kammerman joined his father in the table skirt business after oil tycoon John W. Mecom Sr. asked the pair to cover and dress the tables at a hotel event where they were supplying uniforms. The idea for table skirts was born that day. Kammerman later wanted something of his own and went into the gift shop business during Big Oil’s boom times. But it would all soon go bust when oil prices cratered in the 1980s.
“In 1986, Houston became a ghost town,” Kammerman recalled. “The price of oil dropped to $10 a barrel and my shops were dead.”
Kammerman went back into the table skirt business on his own, working with his wife and mother-in-law to send out hundreds of postcards to big hotels outside Houston offering high-quality custom skirts. Little by little, the responses started coming. He then met Garcia, a skinny undocumented woman from Honduras looking for work. She would eventually become indispensable to the success of Kammerman’s business and family.
By the 1990s, the company was selling globally to the Hong Kong Convention Center, distributors in Saudi Arabia and the Ritz Carlton in Australia. But sewing houses were a dying business, a relic in the first world.
Still, during the 2000s, Kammerman resisted pressure to move his operation overseas, as so many other American manufacturers had done. The competition from Chinese textile factories grew stiff, but he invested more deeply in the “Made in the USA” labels he proudly affixed to his table linens with more automation and a bigger building.
“I heard it all the time, ‘You can do it cheaper over there,’ “ Kammerman said. “But I wanted to control the quality and make a good product. It’s a question of pride.”
Gourmet earned a reputation for attentive customer service and guaranteed the craftsmanship of their work. The texture, color, finish and stitching of his linens became Kammerman’s passion. He can describe the intricacies of using Velcro clips instead of snap buttons to attach skirts to tables with the fervor of a missionary. He roped his children into the work he brought home until they found themselves working alongside him as adults.
The 73-year-old walks the floor of his factory today with the confidence of a gambler who hits his number every time, defiant of the naysayers. The unfastened top buttons of his dress shirt reveals the gold chain around his neck bearing the dearest symbols of his life: a golden copy of his dog tags and a gold Star of David.
Facing yet another threat to his business, the sanguine entrepreneur looked around his factory on Thursday — eerie in its near-silence and emptiness — and grinned as his son-in-law reported the markets had jumped that morning.
“I think this is a good lesson for America to realize what the world’s about,” the septuagenarian said. “It’s a wake-up call for all of us.”
Production has barely begun, but Garcia, a perfectionist who legalized under amnesty in the 1980s and has been with the company ever since, is tweaking the design every time a new mask comes off the line. She’s thought about adding a pocket for physicians to add filters or double-plying. She wondered whether the fabric of cloth diapers might work better.
Garcia’s attention to detail is why the Kammermans call her the boss. She’s been to all the Kammerman weddings and bat and bar mitzvahs. Most of Gourmet’s employees have spent 20 years or more with the company, the family said.
The first lot of masks will be made from the fabric the company ordinarily uses for napkins at high-end restaurants and will be crafted at a single-needle sewing machine. Once the design is set, they will program Gourmet’s machinery to scale up automated production. No one has been laid off, and Kammerman is not taking a salary to keep everyone together. He is hoping the bet pays off and normalcy returns.
“This is the test run,” Garcia said as she pulled open the pleated front of the soft ivory mask she had just sewn and slipped the bands over ears. Two men cut long rolls of fabric into 9.5-inch rectangles for the masks.
A few women were pedaling away at every other sewing machine, wearing paper facial masks and staggering their lunch breaks to comply with social distancing.
The company has not shipped any boxes yet, but Howard Kammerman is already hearing from other interested health-care providers. Maybe they can try hospital gowns? Or operating-room blankets? An ambulance company sent him an inquiring text.
Gayle predicted the pandemic will change the way Americans live. Face masks could become the must-have accessory of the decade for not just hospitals but also day cares, offices and everyday errands. Our relationship with contagions and germs is changing, she said.
Manufacturing, her father said, needs to come back to meet the demand.”Who knows? Maybe there will be a Gourmet Medical Supply soon.” Kammerman chuckled. “Things need to be made here. If this is needed, we are available.”