First the bad news: Donors visiting Houchin Community Blood Bank won't be offered doughnuts until the pandemic is over. Expect only pre-packaged goodies until then.
Now good news: Houchin's expansion to Santa Clarita, announced this week, rides entirely on mobile blood donation vehicles — and future satellite operations are expected to do the same.
That's good, from a local perspective, because it means Bakersfield will continue to be Houchin's beating heart as it undertakes an expansion drive President and CEO Brad Bryan says will transform it into "one of the best if not the best blood bank in all California" within two to five years.
At a time when corporate consolidation affects nearly all aspects of consumer life, Houchin has decided to begin spreading its model of community-based support for local hospitals in need of platelets, plasma and other blood products.
The fleet model Bryan has pioneered — he said he's unaware of another blood bank using the same strategy — relies on mobile collection vehicles to gather donations at employer- and community-based blood drives.
It's a low-cost approach that carries very little risk of over-extension because Houchin doesn't have to lease and staff up a brick-and-mortar center outside Kern.
The central concept continues to be that blood donated locally will end up at local hospitals. But the benefit for Kern is that the manufacturing process, in which platelets or plasma is separated from whole blood, will be done in Bakersfield, by local workers, before the products are shipped to hospitals in the community where they originated.
Houchin's chairman, Joseph “Joe” Engel, said he considers the strategy highly innovative, and that Bryan himself is "ingenious" to have proposed it.
That said, he sounded a tad less exuberant about expanding as quickly as Bryan wants to. Engel's preference is to move slowly to make sure Houchin is able to engender the same community-based feel the organization enjoys in Bakersfield.
"We're not ready to jump in with both feet yet," he said.
If and when Houchin does expand beyond Bakersfield and Santa Clarita, there are certain limits it will respect, Bryan said. For example, it will never step on the proverbial toes of its blood-bank partners based in Fresno and San Diego.
But a southward expansion is a strong possibility, he said, as might be a westward move.
"The coast sure is beautiful," he said coyly, refusing to confirm whether Houchin aims to send mobile blood-donation vehicles to the Central Coast in the years ahead.
Geographical expansion isn't the only kind Bryan envisions. He wants the organization's menu of services to diversify as well.
Under the new leadership of Bryan, a Harvard fellow who co-founded then sold a successful DNA diagnostics company in Texas, Houchin recently began testing blood for University of California campuses in Irvine and Berkeley.
Houchin has also launched other diagnostic services and begun collecting "convalescent plasma" from former COVID-19-positive patients who have recovered from the novel coronavirus. The fluid is believed to offer special infection-fighting abilities to people suffering from the disease.
Bryan said these and other new services are intended to help Houchin survive and thrive even if one aspect of its operations falters.
"If the market shifts in any way, you’re protected," he said. "You're much more safe as a company, as an organization.”
One thing that won't change is the focus on Bakersfield, he said.
The name Houchin used to expand to Santa Clarita is West Coast Blood Center of Santa Clarita. That pattern of naming satellites after the new community will be carried over with any expansion, he said — but it won't change the original name.
"Bakersfield will always be Houchin," he said. "That name will never change here, at least as long as I’m head of Houchin.”