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March 24. 2014 10:52AM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Rustic Crust aims to rise again


Piles of rubble are about all that's left of the Rustic Crust facility following the March 6 fire at the Pittsfield frozen pizza business (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

PITTSFIELD -- A light drizzle dampened the small group gathered Friday near the charred remains of Rustic Crust's production bakery on Barnstead Road. The sun intermittently poked through the clouds, a ray of light piercing through the gloom.

If Brad Sterl needed something like that to lift his mood, it didn't show. He already sounded optimistic while telling Sen. Jeanne Shaheen about the company's plans to resume production at a temporary plant on the other side of town and build a new bakery to replace the one that was gutted by a four-alarm blaze March 6.

The maker of ready-made pizza dough and American Flatbread frozen pizzas is setting up a manufacturing center at a building less than a mile away that it already leases for its offices and warehouse. Sterl said he hopes to be operating in time for an April 7 kickoff event.

There wasn't much to look at during the brief tour of the old plant site - just a blackened husk of a building - but Sterl had plenty to show off in the 5 Main St. facility the company will be using in the months ahead, including a nearly completed brick oven and a new packaging machine. Construction workers were busy retrofitting a giant room, which only days before had been subdivided into smaller spaces.

Sterl, a restaurateur who founded the company in 1996, has kept most of the company's 100 workers on the payroll during the transition. They are spending their work days in training programs until the machinery is in place for them to return to their jobs.

"Paying them is the best thing I can do for them, and maybe it helps the company," said Sterl, 47. "They have the comfort of knowing they can still pay their bills. They're not getting overtime like they were before, but they're getting their 40 hours a week."

Many of the workers are immigrants from Nepal, Indonesia and other Asian locales who commute from Rochester and other New Hampshire communities. While looking for other food production spaces, Sterl and his managers couldn't find one within reasonable driving distance.

"We could have gone to Boston, but I always go back to the employees," Sterl said. "How long do they want to drive? An hour a day or get on a bus (to go to Boston). I feel bad enough for people I know who make $100,000 a year and drive to Boston."

While the Rustic Crust production workers remain mostly idle, Sterl and his sales team are as busy as ever. He had trips booked for Washington, D.C. and Virginia this week and for Phoenix the next, and he intends to keep them to ensure the company doesn't lose momentum. He's already drafted two letters that his staff can share with brokers to inform them about the fire and how the company is responding.

"We're out there selling. We're not going to stop," he said, noting the difficulty and cost associated with securing placement in grocery stores.

"You have to fight for that space. As it is you have to pay fees to get on the shelf in a lot of places," he said. "Then you have the fear of getting somebody out there to fix it for you. It doesn't just get back on the shelf. Somebody has to put it there."

Sterl had been attending the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif., a major industry convention, the night one of the gas-fired ovens at the Rustic Crust plant caught fire at 11:30 p.m. Twenty-five people were working at the time, and all escaped without injury.

On the plane trip home that night, Sterl used the on-board Wifi so he could use his computer to search for replacement equipment. He said one of the first people he called was long-time friend Gary Hirshberg, the co-founder and chairman of Londonderry-based organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm. He hoped Hirshberg might have some ideas about possible locations for another plant and spent the first 10 minutes of the conversation retelling what had happened.

"I said, 'I really can't think about it. All I know is I don't have a building. And I can't be out of work,'" Sterl said.

He was back at the plant in Pittsfield by 1 p.m. the day after the fire. "We were figuring out, what do we need to do? Let's get the list."

Sterl said he is encouraged by the outpouring of support he received from his colleagues in the industry, who offered many potential locales. But ultimately Rustic Crust didn't need to go far, at least for now.

He credited Mark Carrier Construction of Manchester for its work on the temporary plant and its namesake's quick response. "Mark is somebody I've known for at least 15 years. He was one of the first people I called to see if he could help me out," Sterl said.

During Shaheen's visit on Friday, company Vice President and Chief Operations Officer Doug Troy praised the company that owns the building they are leasing, Amenico Green Solutions. One of the Amenico partners knows what he and Sterl are going through, he told the senator. David Ossoff owned the former mill and leather business that burned down in 1996 on the very spot Rustic Crust will now be using as a temporary production plant. Rustic Crust already had been leasing two-thirds of the building.

"When he saw the plight we were in ... he freed up the rest of the space in the building," Troy said.

Rustic Crust is still scouting for locations for a permanent home, but Sterl hopes to stay in Pittsfield and might rebuild on the site of the old plant. He intends to keep the company in New Hampshire.

As if to erase any doubt: Sterl said he is saving what little inventory Rustic Crust has remaining to bring to the Made in NH Expo coming up April 4-6 at the Radisson Hotel Expo Center in Manchester.

He said he has never considered not rebuilding.

"A lot of entrepreneurs have that drive. I'm not going to fail. That's the way I look at it. There is always a way," he said. "I couldn't do it without all the employees and all the support we have had. I just keep going back to that."

.

Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or mcote@unionleader.com.



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