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How Clearwater’s Monin syrup company bounced back fast from COVID-19

The Clearwater company went from a 90 percent drop in sales to a new wave of innovation.
Matt Saxon performs torque tests to assess cap tightness on bottles used to contain a batch of Hazelnut syrup at the production plant at MONIN Americas on Monday, March 1, 2021, in Clearwater.
Matt Saxon performs torque tests to assess cap tightness on bottles used to contain a batch of Hazelnut syrup at the production plant at MONIN Americas on Monday, March 1, 2021, in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 26
Updated Mar. 26

CLEARWATER — Sweet smells tickle Megan Meiers’ nose every morning she comes into work at the Monin Inc.’s U.S. headquarters.

The syrup scents are so potent they hang in the air outside the factory, float into the offices and stick to employees’ clothes long after they leave for the day.

“This morning, they were doing raspberry,” said Meiers, the company’s vice president of human resources. “We often don’t notice it at all, we’re so used it, until we get home and our families say we smell like chocolate.”

Read more: Tampa Bay’s top midsize workplaces in 2021

Monin, which makes and distributes syrups to flavor coffees, cocktails and foods at some of your favorite restaurants and cafes, is undoubtedly a sweet place to work. But the past 12 months of navigating the pandemic have challenged the tight-knit staff. When COVID-19 shuttered restaurants and coffee shops — the company’s main clientele — its business took a massive hit.

Sales were down 90 percent in April 2020, said CEO Bill Lombardo.

But by the end of the 2020 fiscal year, Monin Americas’ sales were down just 22 percent compared to its banner sales year in 2019. It was quite the rebound for a company tied directly to the struggling hospitality industry. Monin not only has its syrups in eateries, but also on cruise ships and at concerts, industries that ceased to operate.

Bill Lombardo, of Safety Harbor, is the CEO of MONIN Americas, headquartered in Clearwater. He poses in front of his own portrait. Every employee at the company has their own a black and white portrait on display.
Bill Lombardo, of Safety Harbor, is the CEO of MONIN Americas, headquartered in Clearwater. He poses in front of his own portrait. Every employee at the company has their own a black and white portrait on display. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Monin employees found ways to get creative and adapt. They made new products and pushed online sales to get their syrups into at-home coffee bars. Lombardo said the company staved off major layoffs or furloughs, largely because his employees came up with ideas to bring in new revenue streams.

“It gave us the opportunity to flex muscles we didn’t even know we had,” said Stasha Johnson, the director of digital marketing and e-commerce sales.

When the Tampa Bay Times and its top workplaces survey reached Monin employees, they spoke strongly of their workplace despite the year’s challenges. Monin ranked No. 5 in Tampa Bay’s list of top workplaces for mid-sized companies. Monin Americas is a subsidiary of Monin France.

Early in the pandemic, employees banded together to quickly shift their factory into producing bottles of hand sanitizer when demand outpaced supply. Many of those bottles have been donated to nursing homes and schools.

Read more: The pandemic turned happy hour into virtual trivia

Creative problem solving continued after that, but with the focus on making up for lost sales. Monin employees created pre-made cocktail mixes — just add alcohol — to make it easier for restaurants to handle to-go drinks as they leaned heavily into the carryout market. They have been a hit, according to Lombardo.

The company also quickly created and manufactured a product it calls Immunity Boost. The liquid is made with vitamins and antioxidants to support the immune system and comes in the same easy-to-pump bottle. Without a potent flavor, it’s a simple add-on to smoothies and teas to get some extra vitamins, Lombardo said.

You can find Monin’s flavorings in drinks at chains such as Outback Steakhouse and local eateries such as Safety Harbor’s Gigglewaters.

The Clearwater Monin facility and its towering silos of pure sugar are tucked away on Range Road.

The MONIN Americas original Headquarters and Flavor Innovation Center in Clearwater is where the companyÕs team of more than 200 employees works to perfect and produces new flavor offerings, create recipes and beverage innovations, and oversees all the companyÕs sales and operations throughout North America, South America and the Caribbean.
The MONIN Americas original Headquarters and Flavor Innovation Center in Clearwater is where the companyÕs team of more than 200 employees works to perfect and produces new flavor offerings, create recipes and beverage innovations, and oversees all the companyÕs sales and operations throughout North America, South America and the Caribbean. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Every week, Suji Gunabalasingam and his team arrive as early as 4 a.m. to tend to the syrup room. He’s been working with the company for the last six years.

“They listen to our ideas,” he said, “and we act like a family.”

On a recent weekday afternoon, conveyor belts buzzed with a batch of hazelnut syrup. Away from the noise of clattering glass bottles, Angela Thompson worked in an area on the Monin campus made to look like a cafe.

The bar isn’t open to the public, but gives Thompson a place to show restaurants and other businesses ways to use the syrups and create drinks.

Read more: Searching for a workplace that fosters new ideas? The HOTH ranks high

From left: Rock Melon Cantaloup, Cucumber, Pineberry and Dragon Fruit syrups on display at the MONIN Americas original Headquarters and Flavor Innovation Center on Monday, March 1, 2021, in Clearwater.
From left: Rock Melon Cantaloup, Cucumber, Pineberry and Dragon Fruit syrups on display at the MONIN Americas original Headquarters and Flavor Innovation Center on Monday, March 1, 2021, in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Thompson — a 15-year Monin veteran and beverage innovation director — hasn’t been able to woo as many clients during the pandemic. But the next day, she said, clients were flying in from Boston.

They would be the first out-of-town clients coming to the demonstration cafe since the pandemic began.

ABOUT THE COMPANY

Monin Americas’ locally manufactured syrups are shipped across the U.S. and to 29 other countries in the Western hemisphere. The company is a subsidiary of Monin France, which was founded in 1912. It’s U.S. headquarters are in Clearwater.

Employees: 177

Locations: Clearwater headquarters and Largo distribution center

Website: monin.com

EMPLOYEE COMMENTS

“I feel valued and respected as a team member. Monin Is a company that cares about their employees. I feel that i have a great future with Monin.”

“When you work remotely it can feel like an island, but the other members of the sales team, the management, and the internal staff really do make this job fun and a pleasure to do every day. Many companies preach a family atmosphere but Monin is the one company I have worked for that actually has the atmosphere they want to create.”

“Monin has proven in the middle of a pandemic that they are willing to make financial sacrifices in order to maintain a culture of family and care about each employee’s well-being.”