Photos from bar patios around the state make it clear: People, particularly younger folks, are eager as ever to imbibe with friends. To enable and encourage safe partying, two New Jersey companies have developed masks that don’t need to be taken off while sipping.
Crook & Marker, a Hamilton-based spiked seltzer company, launched its TasteMask the first week in July. Redee, an Edison-based company that manufactures transdermal “healthy drinking” patches that prevent redness while boozing, launched its Redee Mask just two weeks after.
The masks were an obvious brand extension for the already alcohol-adjacent companies.
“We have a product that’s centered around drinking and helping people drink healthier. When places opened around May, I got to thinking—how are people going to drink, whether that’s alcohol, water, or coffee, how are they going to drink safely?” said Redee founder Ryan Lee.
Masks as fashion and function emerged early in the pandemic and have grown more popular the longer face coverings have been required. Common surgical masks sold out from drug stores and more serious PPE like N95s were saved for frontline medical workers. And what started as a way for people to protect themselves and others has turned into a big business, with cloth mask sales surging online and in stores.
Online marketplace Etsy reported earlier this month that 110,000 Etsy sellers sold 29 million face masks in its second quarter, generating $346 million in sales.
But the masks on the market were difficult or impossible to drink through with a straw. In planning a design, Lee noted that a mask with a perma-exposed straw hole renders a mask unsafe so he went further, fashioning a two-layer mask with a flap at the base.
Crook & Marker tested several mask prototypes over a three-week period in May, including one with zippers and one with the type of valve found on a beach ball. Ultimately, the company ended up with a snap-button flap that covers up a straw hole when it’s not in use.
At pandemic pace, pivots happen quickly. From idea to launch, Lee took two months to create the Redee mask. Crook & Marker took just shy of that.
“The whole year, we’ve had this strategy of being relevant to what was going on because we came into February with all of these plans to be at music festivals [and] all the areas where people were holidaying, and we realized in March that none of that was realistic,” said Daniel Goodfellow, Crook & Marker’s chief marketing officer. “So everything we’ve done since then, we’ve said ‘OK, let’s just be truly relevant to what people are feeling and doing.’
“In the early stages of COVID, that was about trying to just do right by people, get out of the way a little bit, and provide positivity when people needed it. Over the summer, as people got more into the summer mindset, we thought ‘how can we take this thing up a notch and create something fun,’” he said.
They created a visual and posted it on Instagram on May 8 without necessarily thinking they would create it in real life, but people online went wild, he said. After the prototyping period and the time it took to manufacture, TasteMasks launched on July 2 and sold out within a few hours. Just ahead of the Fourth of July holiday, the masks drove traffic to Crook & Marker’s website an additional 200 percent.
The company immediately began making more.
Lee had a similar experience with Redee: his original production run was 1,000, but when CNN and Fox News each featured it on their website, he called the frenzy around the product “a crazy, crazy time.”
“We sold out really quickly and had a rush to get a bunch made. We’re having like 20,000 more made right now,” Lee said.
Lee is fielding calls from businesses who want to buy them for their employees and for their customers, and he’s gotten emails from teachers interested in using them to drink coffee when schools open up.
“We’re also reaching out to airlines, amusement parks, just a bunch of different places where people are wearing their masks for an extended period of time,” Lee said. “Taking off your mask to drink exposes you and exposes others. Hopefully we can help some people out.”
Redee masks retail for $24.99. TasteMasks retail for $14.99 and are part of Crook & Marker’s Cheers Up campaign, an initiative designed to spread small bursts of optimism and raise much needed funds for bartenders and hospitality workers impacted by COVID-19 for United States Bartenders Guild foundation. All TasteMask proceeds are donated to the USBG.
The products are available on the respective company’s website.