March 28, 2020

The end-of-the-world business is booming

“Coronavirus is just the spark,” says one doomsday prep supplier. “What’s really driving sales is the fear of what’s to come.”

 

There’s an old fable that doomsday preppers are particularly fond of:

An industrious ant spends an entire summer gathering grain, while his neighbor, a grasshopper, sings, dances, and mocks him for stockpiling. When the grasshopper comes begging for food in the winter, the ant is burrowed underground with his mountain of rations, safe from the storm.

Coronavirus is now the ‘winter’ that is upon us all — and the grasshoppers are all on the hunt for grain.

We’ve all seen the empty supermarket shelves, the sanitizer jousting, and the toilet paper hoarding. But now, even shops that cater to hardcore doomsday preppers have found themselves… unprepared for the pandemic.

In recent weeks, doomsday businesses have been flooded with phone calls, emails, and bulk orders — not from survivalists, but soccer moms, professors, and orthodontists. There is suddenly a backorder on everything from 20-pound rations of dehydrated peaches to multimillion-dollar private bunkers.

For the moment, doomsday prepping has gone mainstream.

The prepper economy

 

At first glance, Jason Charles’ apartment doesn’t raise any eyebrows.

Photos of the 43-year old firefighter and his 5 children line the white walls of his 5th-floor Harlem abode. He has a bookcase lined with DVDs, a well-worn couch, and a flatscreen TV — all the trappings of a typical American household.

The hallway closet tells a different story.

Jason Charles at his NYC apartment (Photo: Adam Gray / Barcroft Media via Getty Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Inside, you’ll find everything necessary to survive Armageddon: Rucksacks, ropes, hatchets, first-aid kits, 2-way radios, 5-gallon jugs of water, a crossbow, a bullet-proof vest, homemade detergent, flashlights, candles, powdered milk, fire starters, mylar blankets, and tarps.

Off-site, in a Bronx storage unit, he keeps an inflatable raft, a filtration system, and a two-year supply of Chef Boyardee ravioli.

“Some people say they’re peppers — but you go to see their shit and they’ve got, like, two cans of beans and a pack of batteries,” he says. “I’m not playing around.”

Charles is one of America’s estimated 3.7m “committed” preppers, folks who preemptively stock up for the “Big One,” be it a nuclear disaster, a hurricane, or an economic meltdown.

“Prepper” might conjure up an image of a militant, off-the-grid conspiracy theorist. But the bulk of today’s crop are normies — dentists in Nebraska, oil rig workers in Texas, techies in California — who share a distrust in the system and an individualistic outlook. 

They congregate in forums and private Facebook groups to discuss things like homemade lamp oil, the shelf life of canned sardines, and the optimal moment to “bug out” (evacuate). They use acronyms like TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It) and read blogs like Doom And Bloom and Mom With a Prep.

As one prepper told the AP, “The vast majority of this is ‘beans and Band-Aids,’ not ‘bullets and bunkers.’”

According to one survey, 43% of preppers earn $100k or more per year, and 67% are homeowners. Doomsday stockpiling, it turns out, often calls for disposable income.

The Hustle asked 15 avid preppers to share how much they spend on food and gear. Among our sample, the average prepper reported dropping just under $1.4k per year on supplies — around $350 (25%) on food, and $1k (75%) on gear. (This is a small sample size, so take it with a 150-pound bag of salt.) 

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

Charles first started prepping 10 years ago, after reading One Second After, a novel in which an electromagnetic pulse leads to complete power grid failure.

Since then, he estimates he’s spent ~$10k on supplies, including:

  • 2 years’ worth of non-perishable food (tuna, corned beef, tomato sauce, cereal, vacuum-sealed frozen meats, beans, MREs)
  • “Bug-out” bags: Portable kits containing the essentials required to survive for 3 days (water, food, face masks, first-aid, shelter)
  • Specialized tools, like $300 knives, shovels, and radios

The Department of Homeland Security recommends having enough supplies on hand to survive for 72 hours. But the prepper community likes to say that “there’s no such thing as going overboard.”

In the midst of a pandemic, society has taken that mantra to heart — and the doomsday market has seen record sales.

Doomsday? There’s a store for that!

 

As counties across the country enter lockdown, people have turned to a smattering of niche online doomsday purveyors to snatch up bulk provisions of food, rucksacks, and gas masks.

It’s hard to quantify the size of the doomsday prep market, but “emergency management” — the larger ecosystem these businesses fall under — is a $107B global industry that is projected to grow to $149B in the next 5 years.

These businesses are no stranger to panic buying.

Historically, every time there is some inkling of civil unrest or a possible infringement on personal freedoms, the doomsday market sees a public groundswell: Sales went up in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis, Obama’s re-election in 2012, and the rising nuclear tensions between the US and North Korea in 2017.

But according to the doomsday stores, coronavirus has led to an “unprecedented” explosion in website traffic, bulk purchases, and inventory depletion.

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

The online retailer Doomsday Prep, which carries the slogan “Prepare for the worst, and expect it,” is sold out of nearly everything. Since January, the store has seen a 200% increase in order volume and a 4x increase in web traffic.

“I jokingly say we’re the coronavirus hotline right now,” the site’s founder, David Sanders, wrote. “In the past, we [were] taking a handful of calls in a month. Now we’re taking a handful of calls in between lunch and dinner.”

Emergency Essentials, which sells bulk food supplies, is also in flux.

Its signature “shelter-in-place” kit — a 1-year, 4-person food supply that contains 2,755,205 calories, boasts a 30-year shelf-life, and retails for $6.9k — is out of stock. The items on its pandemic supplies page are all on backorder, right down to the $24.95 portable toilet made out of a 6-gallon bucket.

“We’re pretty much out of everything,” a salesperson told us. “This is a good case for preparing in advance.”

The Ready Store, which sells water storage solutions and emergency gear, has had to add a special banner to its homepage, informing customers of a 3-month delay on new orders. And “survival system” retailer Uncharted Supply has reported “Black Friday levels of traffic.”

Meanwhile, a different industry has cashed in on a much deeper — and vastly more expensive — fear: the pandemic’s potentially chaotic aftermath.

The bunker business

In a massive warehouse in Sulphur Springs, Texas, Ron Hubbard is hard at work constructing multimillion-dollar bunkers for tech billionaires.

Hubbard, who calls himself “the Henry Ford of bunkers,” launched Atlas Survival Shelters in 2008 to answer a growing demand for underground doomsday abodes. His products range from $49k for a 10×13 culvert pipe shelter up to $5m for a “California platinum series,” which sleeps 28 and includes a greenhouse and a “motor cave.”

“I’m selling bunkers like crazy,” he says. “My phone is ringing all day.”

Top left: Ron Hubbard inside a culvert pipe bunker; Top right: A project installation; Bottom: The floorplan for the $5m “California” bunker (Atlas Survival Shelters)

Thanks to coronavirus, Hubbard currently has 20 bunkers under construction and is looking at a 3-6 month backlog.

He’s quick to clarify that people aren’t buying bunkers for quarantining. Rather, the pandemic has served as a “wake-up call.”

“Coronavirus has made them realize they need a safe place for the future,” he says. “Most of my clients believe the big one is still to come; they’ve always wanted a bunker, but coronavirus was the deciding factor.”

Some 70 miles South, in Murchison, TX, Hubbard’s heated rival, Rising S Company, is seeing a similar spike in demand.

Co-owner Gary Lynch says January-March sales volume is up 4x from last year, with most orders coming in the last 10 days. The company’s customers run the gamut from gun-toting oil workers to pacifist Democrats.

Lynch doesn’t personally see coronavirus as much of a threat, but Rising S is using the pandemic as a marketing tool: The company’s homepage features a banner with the coronavirus molecule and a note that they sell “an economical filter system” designed to protect against the virus.

He says coronavirus has “convinced people on the fence” to take the plunge and spend the $60k to $100k+ for an entry-level bunker.

Top: Construction underway at the Rising S warehouse in Texas; Bottom: A banner on the company’s homepage features the coronavirus molecule (Rising S Company)

“Our shelters will protect you against a nuclear fallout, civil unrest, home invasions, anthrax, mustard gas, and COVID-19,” says Lynch. “There’s not a known threat I know of that our shelter won’t protect you against.”

Since 2002, Lynch says Rising S has built around 1.2k shelters all over the US. The company’s most popular model, the Silver Leaf — essentially a 500-square-foot underground mini-house — starts at $122.5k.

But like Hubbard, Lynch also caters to the upper-crust: He sells an $8.35m shelter dubbed “The Aristocrat,” which comes equipped with a fitness center, a swimming pool, a bowling alley, and a movie theater. He purportedly built a custom variation of the model for Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

Mike Peters, who runs the Utah-based Ultimate Bunker, has also been fielding an increasing number of inquiries since coronavirus began to spread.

“People aren’t worried about the pandemic; they’re worried about what’s to come,” he says. “They’re worried about martial law, and cities closing down, and their neighbors stealing food from them.”

He recently took on a big project for a tech billionaire — “Not quite Bill Gates but definitely right up there with him — in the mountains of California. The state, he says, has been a “hot spot” for bunkers, especially during the pandemic.

The ants and the grasshoppers

 

Back in New York, Charles says he doesn’t plan to dip into his rations during the quarantine. Instead, he’s “fortifying his supplies” for what he sees as the real threat: the economic disaster that could sprout up in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Under the YouTube alias “The Angry Prepper,” he’s been dispensing weekly coronavirus tips to his 5k followers.

Some fellow “prepper influencers” have taken advantage of the moment by “fear-mongering people into buying products,” says Charles. But he is more interested in educating the public. In a recent dispatch, he honed in on how to effectively “prolong your meats.”

“If your first impulse during all of this is to capitalize on people’s needs and hopes, you are the real disease,” he says.

Jason Charles looks over the city from his rooftop in Harlem, NYC (Photo: Adam Gray / Barcroft Media via Getty Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

In his opinion, the recent surge in demand for food and survival gear has been driven not by “true” preppers, but by the grasshoppers — the ~50% of Americans who don’t actively prepare for any kind of disaster.

The ants, he says, gathered their grains long ago.

Any prepper worth his weight in freeze-dried beef stroganoff has been stocking up for years, patiently waiting for a moment like this — a moment that validates the research, funds, and familial ridicule.

“You’re constantly questioning yourself as a prepper,” he says. “You think, ‘Man, nothing’s happening. This is all a big waste of time and money.’ Then, something like coronavirus happens, and it justifies everything.”

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