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Rustic Crust owner to continue paying employees’ salaries

Rustic Crust CEO Brad Sterl started the company in Pittsfield where they now employ 60. Sterl hopes to add 30 more jobs in the next two years. Photographed in the bakery on Monday, January 30, 2012.

(Alexander CohnMonitor Staff)

Rustic Crust CEO Brad Sterl started the company in Pittsfield where they now employ 60. Sterl hopes to add 30 more jobs in the next two years. Photographed in the bakery on Monday, January 30, 2012. (Alexander CohnMonitor Staff)

A fire may have ripped apart the building where Rustic Crust made its frozen pizzas, but it did not destroy the heart of the company, founder Brad Sterl said yesterday.

Sterl reassured about 75 of his 100 employees last night in Concord that he would continue paying their salaries while he looked for a temporary location for them to resume making gourmet pizzas and crusts. The Friday morning fire that destroyed the 16,000-square-foot bakery in Pittsfield will only pause production, not halt it, Sterl said. He said he hopes to begin making pizza crusts in a temporary facility in the next three to six weeks, and have a new bakery built within six months – complete with a sprinkler system.

“When it first happened, people kept asking me ,‘What’s going to happen? Will you reopen?’ The answer was I never thought anything else. It’s been my life. There was never any other thought,” Sterl said before the meeting. The meeting at Grappone Conference Center was for employees only.

The owner who started the business 18 years ago in a small shop in Pittsfield said he got the first call about the fire at 31 Barnstead Road late Thursday night just after the 911 report.

Sterl was in California at a natural food conference.

“I was told the bakery was on fire, and then I didn’t hear anything for 20 minutes,” Sterl said.

“I didn’t know what kind of fire. Was it big? Or was it small?” Sterl said.

The next call ended any doubt.

“He said, ‘The flames are coming through the roof,’ ” Sterl said, his voice choking, tears in his eyes.

By that time, Sterl and his wife were on their way to the airport in Anaheim, Calif. The last thing Sterl heard before he boarded the plane for Boston was that the roof had collapsed.

On the plane, Sterl powered up his laptop and began looking for replacement ovens. It never occurred to him to give up, he said.

“I can’t break down. I can’t. We can’t. We have to move on,” Sterl said.

Sterl has moved quickly to try to locate a temporary building in which to make pizzas, but he said any place in the area would have to be completely outfitted before the first pizza could hit the oven. He doesn’t want to go too far – even temporarily – because he wants to keep the employees he has, he said; even Manchester would result in the loss of some of them.

Slowing down the process of rebuilding is that the brick ovens at Rustic Crust were custom designed, Sterl said. He already has a craftsman rebuilding an oven out of thousands of bricks, but it will take weeks to finish. An open brick oven is required to make the American Flatbread pizzas, he said.

Sterl said he was told the fire did not start in one of the open brick ovens, but in a gas oven. He said the new building will definitely have improved fire safety equipment, such as sprinklers. The Barnstead Road bakery was in an old building, and Sterl said he felt that was the reason for its rapid burn.

Before the fire, Sterl said the bakery was making pizzas and pizza crusts 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

Sterl said he feels his employees are central to his prosperity. Even though he is losing $100,000 a day while Rustic Crust remains closed, he said he will find a way to keep the bakery in the Pittsfield area.

“The employees keep telling me they are sorry. They tell me, ‘We’re with you.’ I don’t think that always happens,” Sterl said.

Tom Peterson is a warehouse manager who spoke after the meeting last night. He has been with Rustic Crust for four years.

“Brad spoke from the heart and with feeling, and I think people felt it. I see a lot of smiling faces,” Peterson said of the crowd.

Peterson said the group of employees at Rustic Crust is close.

“We had a lot of relieved folks tonight. I think for a lot of people it’s a hard thing,” he said. “There’s hope.”

Rustic Crust was founded in 1996 and is advertised as the nation’s leading retail brand for natural and organic pizza crust. Sterl said Rustic Crust pizza crusts and the American Flatbread pizzas are sold in 6,700 stores nationwide.

(Daira Cline can be reached at 369-3306 or

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