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Fire destroys Pittsfield’s Rustic Crust bakery

  • Bal Gautam, left, and Til Chouhan, survey what's left after a fire destroyed the Rustic Crust pizza business in Pittsfield late Thursday night into Friday morning. Both were employees of the company for 3 years along with Gautam's wife, Bishnu Gautam, who began working there about a week ago. The town's water supply was depleted cancelling school on Friday as around fifty firefighters responded to the four-alarm fire.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Bal Gautam, left, and Til Chouhan, survey what's left after a fire destroyed the Rustic Crust pizza business in Pittsfield late Thursday night into Friday morning. Both were employees of the company for 3 years along with Gautam's wife, Bishnu Gautam, who began working there about a week ago. The town's water supply was depleted cancelling school on Friday as around fifty firefighters responded to the four-alarm fire.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Rustic Crust in Pittsfield.<br/><br/>(Bob Legg / Courtesy photo)

    Rustic Crust in Pittsfield.

    (Bob Legg / Courtesy photo)

  • A fire destroyed the Rustic Crust pizza shop in Pittsfield late Thursday night. Employees stopped by the location to view the damage on Friday afternoon, March 7, 2014.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    A fire destroyed the Rustic Crust pizza shop in Pittsfield late Thursday night. Employees stopped by the location to view the damage on Friday afternoon, March 7, 2014.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Bal Gautam, left, and Til Chouhan, survey what's left after a fire destroyed the Rustic Crust pizza business in Pittsfield late Thursday night into Friday morning. Both were employees of the company for 3 years along with Gautam's wife, Bishnu Gautam, who began working there about a week ago. The town's water supply was depleted cancelling school on Friday as around fifty firefighters responded to the four-alarm fire.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Rustic Crust in Pittsfield.<br/><br/>(Bob Legg / Courtesy photo)
  • A fire destroyed the Rustic Crust pizza shop in Pittsfield late Thursday night. Employees stopped by the location to view the damage on Friday afternoon, March 7, 2014.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

The smell of smoke was so powerful early yesterday that residents throughout the center of Pittsfield awoke with the same thought – they feared their home was burning. The odor, though, came from an intense four-alarm blaze that destroyed Rustic Crust, a pizza crust bakery that employs about 60 workers.

“The smell was sickening. It was all through Pittsfield. I thought it was in my basement, but then I didn’t see any smoke,” said Donald Foster, who woke up at 1:30 a.m. in his apartment on Chestnut Street, about three-quarters of a mile from the bakery.

As many as 100 firefighters from 18 towns rushed to the area to battle the early morning blaze, which was fueled by vast amounts of flour and cooking oil. The fire caused power outages and near depletion of the town’s 1-million gallon water supply. Two hours after it was reported, firefighters had to pull away from hydrants and use chain saws to cut holes in the icy Suncook River to drop in their hoses.

The lack of running water forced the closure of Pittsfield’s elementary and middle schools, which are located on a hill above the bakery. School officials said classes would resume as normal Monday.

“It was a real challenge,” said Pittsfield fire Capt. Mike Wolfe.

Rustic Crust, at 31 Barnstead Road, was founded in 1996 and touts itself as the nation’s leading retail brand for natural and organic pizza crust. In 2005, and again in 2010, the company expanded the bakery in Pittsfield. Its employee count grew from eight in 2005 to more than 60 in 2012, Chief Executive Officer Brad Sterl said in an interview with the Small Business Administration.

The February 2010 expansion came after the company purchased the rights to produce frozen crusts for American Flatbread Co. Rustic Crust advertises its use of “wood-fired earthen ovens” to bake the dough it says employees first stretch by hand. A video of the operation online shows an open oven, where pizzas are placed on a metal conveyor belt.

Several calls made to Rustic Crust headquarters were not returned yesterday.

Pittsfield firefighters were the first to respond to the 11:30 p.m. report of a fire in an oven at Rustic Crust. About 20 employees were waiting outside when firefighters arrived, Pittsfield fire Chief Robert Martin said. One firefighter was injured when he slipped on ice. He was treated and released from the hospital.

Firefighters doused the building throughout the night and past midday yesterday and used an excavator to crush the walls in search of hot spots.

“It’s done. It’s completely finished,” Martin said of the building.

Martin and his crew said Pittsfield shouldn’t be worried about losing water every time a fire erupts.

“This was kind of a random event,” Martin said. “You typically don’t have this type of fire load.”

That load Martin was referring to was the bags of flour and gallons of oil used to bake the pizza crusts, which helped the fire spread rapidly.

“We pretty much drained the water from the municipal system. That doesn’t happen,” Martin said.

The road was blocked about a half-mile from the building. Fire crews from across the state took breaks in passenger trucks to combat fatigue they said came as much from fighting the weather as the fire.

Late yesterday morning, residents wandered along the thousands of feet of yellow and blue hoses leading from the river to an engine truck. Firefighters were still using the hoses in teams on ladder trucks high above the crushed building. Icicles hung from sections of a steel oven, but most of the building stood black against the blue sky.

Two-year-old Quincy Rao came with his grandmother Mary Martin about noon for a look at the firefighters and trucks. Quincy stood silent, staring at the firefighters who, exhausted, sat in pickup trucks along the road.

“The flames got pretty high,” Mary Martin said. Martin owns a home about a half-mile from the bakery. Her dogs woke her up the night before.

“The dogs were anxious,” she said. “I smelled smoke and looked for a fire inside, but then I saw all the lights flashing outside, and I knew something serious was going on.”

Firefighter Andrew Perkins came from his home in Concord to help fight the fire. He said the fire was quickly out of control and the building could not be saved.

“It’s a manpower thing, too,” Perkins said. “There’s only so much one crew can do.”

This is not the first oven fire at Rustic Crust. In October 2010 about 20 employees were evacuated for “a little fire in one of our ovens,” Chief Operating Officer Doug Troy told a Monitor reporter.

(Daira Cline can be reached at 369-3306 or dcline@cmonitor.com.)

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