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Pittsfield’s Rustic Crust: ‘We’re back’

  • Paul Cote (second from left), first shift team leader at Rustic Crust, helps distribute sacks of spice blends to employees getting back to work at the company's temporary production space in Pittsfield on April 7, 2014. Almost a month after a fire that destroyed the frozen pizza company's previous production location, Rustic Crust is back in operation in their warehouse space, which has been redone to help restock for suppliers.  <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Paul Cote (second from left), first shift team leader at Rustic Crust, helps distribute sacks of spice blends to employees getting back to work at the company's temporary production space in Pittsfield on April 7, 2014. Almost a month after a fire that destroyed the frozen pizza company's previous production location, Rustic Crust is back in operation in their warehouse space, which has been redone to help restock for suppliers.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Rustic Crust owner and founder Brad Sterl stands on the production floor at the company's new temporary production space in Pittsfield on April 7, 2014. The space was formerly the company's warehouse space. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Rustic Crust owner and founder Brad Sterl stands on the production floor at the company's new temporary production space in Pittsfield on April 7, 2014. The space was formerly the company's warehouse space.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Rustic Crust's shipping desk is temporarily located in a nook behind supplies on the warehouse floor. While the company is back in operation, they are still firing solutions for their temporary production space, which used to be their warehouse space. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Rustic Crust's shipping desk is temporarily located in a nook behind supplies on the warehouse floor. While the company is back in operation, they are still firing solutions for their temporary production space, which used to be their warehouse space.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Paul Cote (second from left), first shift team leader at Rustic Crust, helps distribute sacks of spice blends to employees getting back to work at the company's temporary production space in Pittsfield on April 7, 2014. Almost a month after a fire that destroyed the frozen pizza company's previous production location, Rustic Crust is back in operation in their warehouse space, which has been redone to help restock for suppliers.  <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Rustic Crust owner and founder Brad Sterl stands on the production floor at the company's new temporary production space in Pittsfield on April 7, 2014. The space was formerly the company's warehouse space. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Rustic Crust's shipping desk is temporarily located in a nook behind supplies on the warehouse floor. While the company is back in operation, they are still firing solutions for their temporary production space, which used to be their warehouse space. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

Wearing a hairnet and a black shirt covered in flour, Brad Sterl looked like a man who was back in business.

Today, the company, which makes all-natural and gluten-free pizza crusts, frozen pizzas and sauce, officially reopens.

Standing near big plastic bags filled with flour and sparkling stainless steel machines that make and package dough and pizzas, Sterl said it’s been a whirlwind since the March 6 fire.

Yesterday served as a dry run for Sterl and his 100 employees. “We were just kind of testing equipment and running test production,” he said.

Days after the fire leveled the 31 Barnstead Road facility, Sterl decided to move into a warehouse that has been used for inventory storage since 2008. Keeping the company in Pittsfield was a priority, Sterl said. Also, sending production elsewhere would have meant sharing trade secrets, and Rustic Crust’s brick ovens are custom-made.

On Friday, the company received a certificate of occupancy for the 10,000-square-foot space, which Sterl said is temporary. He hopes to rebuild at the old location, where he opened Rustic Crust in 1996.

“If all goes well, that’s where we would end up. I don’t want to promise anything, but it’s good for our employees. It’s good for the community, which has been outstanding,” he said.

Pizza making will begin tomorrow on a small scale, with one of three production lines open, but by week’s end, the remaining two lines will open. The brick ovens needed to cook American Flatbread pizzas at 1,000 degrees aren’t finished, Sterl said. Regular production is expected to resume in three weeks, when the company will make 50,000 to 100,000 pounds of dough a day – enough for about 150,000 personal pizzas and 60,000 to 80,000 12-inch pizza crusts.

The company also has installed new sprinklers, floor drains and hand-cleaning stations. It plans to keep production on Main Street for six to 12 months, Sterl said.

“This is just to kind of get us through until we have our new building. We will make this work until our new place is done,” he said. The company is in the design phase of a new building and hopes to keep it local. “If we can’t build on that site, we’ll probably find some place as local as we can that makes sense,” he said.

After the fire, Sterl said he would continue to pay Rustic Crust employees while the company was closed, and he did.

“I’m glad I was in a position to do it. They all work hard for me. It was the least I could do,” he said.

One of those workers, Paul Cote, stepped away from a group of employees working with flour. “We have just been nonstop. Work, work, work. There hasn’t been a day yet that no one has been working,” said Cote, a first-shift team leader. “It’s just amazing how fast we got it done, and it’s all because of this guy,” he said, pointing to Sterl.

The fire destroyed custom-built brick ovens, gas ovens and space for production and storage. What wasn’t burned was torn down.

“When we burned down, we had almost 100,000 pounds of cheese that had just come in,” Sterl said. “All the cheese was still sitting there on the pallets. It was almost 250,000 pounds of cheese (in total). We had to throw it out.”

Insurance is expected to cover the damage, which Sterl said is more than $10 million.

“It’s funny. A lot of people just say, ‘Why didn’t you take the money?’ We didn’t even think about it. I look at all these people that rely on us for jobs and to support their families,” he said. “Maybe it would have been okay for me, but all these other people would have been devastated. That’s really what it came down to. I never thought about not opening.”

Sterl opened the door to an inventory storage freezer, which will hold more than $1 million in product waiting for shipment when business is operating regularly. There is only a few dollars’ worth of inventory now, and it will take months to rebuild it. “Generally, we don’t sit on a lot of inventory. We make it and then we ship it,” he said.

The support of the community has been at times overwhelming, Sterl said. He thanked first responders and Pittsfield residents in an ad in the Sunday Monitor. Today, he will hang a giant banner that takes up most of a table in Rustic Crust’s conference room. The message on the banner summed it up: “We’re back and we couldn’t have done it without you.”

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com.)

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