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Alumnus transitions business to give back to community

At the start of the pandemic, Carolina Law alumnus and Top of the Hill owner Scott Maitland transitioned his business from distilling liquor to producing organic hand sanitizer for first responders and consumers.

Four men hold blue buckets near distillery equipment
Carolina alumnus Scott Maitland (second from left) and his team at TOPO Organic Distillery donated more than 900 gallons of the sanitizer to first responders in 35 different communities. (Photo courtesy TOPO Organic Distillery)

Located at the intersection of Franklin Street and Columbia Street, Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery — known to many as “TOPO” — has been a Chapel Hill icon since 1996.

But to founder and owner Scott Maitland, who graduated from the UNC School of Law in 1995 and now serves as a professor of the practice at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business, the restaurant is more than an icon: it’s a cornerstone of the Chapel Hill community.

“I have always looked at this space as a community treasure. My team runs the space with that in mind,” Maitland said. “We recognize the importance of this space to the entire community, not just Chapel Hill, but the University community. And that means a lot.”

Like many downtown Chapel Hill businesses, TOPO was forced to close its doors during the coronavirus pandemic’s early stages due to social distancing guidelines. But TOPO employees weren’t out of the game for long.

Maitland’s team at the TOPO Organic Distillery quickly began creating organic hand sanitizer for first responders and consumers.

“When COVID hit, it was obvious that, out of all of the stores, we were the ones able to make hand sanitizer,” Maitland said.

Maitland said that unlike many distilleries, TOPO Organic Distillery makes its own alcohol from scratch in-house, which meant they were uniquely positioned to begin the sanitizer operation early on in the pandemic, without having to rely on an outside manufacturer.

At first, the production costs weren’t cheap due to the high-quality, organic alcohol that TOPO is known for. But Maitland said the effort was worth it to keep the business, which employs more than 150 people, afloat and serve the community and its first responders.

“In the beginning, it was very expensive because we were literally converting vodka into hand sanitizer,” Maitland said. Right. “Locally-sourced organic hand sanitizer isn’t the cheapest.”

Maitland estimated that the Top of the Hill team has donated more than 900 gallons of the sanitizer to first responders in 35 different communities, from Orange County to as far away as Nashville, Tennessee, and Richmond, Virginia.

TOPO plans start curbside food pickup from its restaurant on July 22, almost four months after it closed. The hand sanitizer operation will continue at the distillery, but Maitland is excited to welcome the Chapel Hill community back for in-person dining.

And as students prepare to make their way back to Carolina for the start of the semester, Maitland hopes that their return will bring much-needed business to TOPO and other downtown businesses.

“While things might be different, things are still the same,” Maitland said. “We’re all looking forward to resuming our lives here in Chapel Hill, and while we may need to make some compromises and accommodations because of the situation, I’m looking forward to all the energy that students bring. I hope students appreciate the role that downtown plays in their Carolina experience.”