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Rustic Crust employees busy, Pittsfield residents optimistic after fire destroys bakery

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)

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)

Paul Cote has a 3-mile commute from his home in Pittsfield to his job at Rustic Crust, the all-natural pizza crust company. So he didn’t have much time to dwell on the news report he heard on the radio Friday morning.

Cote, the pizza company’s first-shift team leader, got to the bakery on Barnstead Road in minutes, and found a four-alarm fire, firefighters from 18 towns and distressed executives watching flames lap the building.

Not wanting to stand idle watching his workplace burn, Cote asked if he could spend the day at the other Rustic Crust site in town, the warehouse on Joy Street where the old tannery used to be.

He’s been working at the warehouse all weekend with plenty to do and no time to feel sorry for himself or anyone else, he said.

That’s the message he’d like to share with Pittsfield, his fellow employees and the rest of the region: Rustic Crust is down, but by no means out.

An exact cause of the fire that started early Friday morning hasn’t been determined yet, said Pittsfield fire Chief Richard Martin, but the blaze spread quickly, fueled by flour and oil. The building is a total loss, a pile of black rubble wrapped with yellow caution tape.

“We were distraught, of course, for a bit,” Cote said. “But the mood was definitely better by (Saturday) afternoon.”

That’s when word started getting around that founder and CEO Brad Sterl is already looking for a temporary location to get production going again, Cote said.

“His spirits are up, and his options are wide,” Cote said. “I absolutely love my job, and a big part of it is that the boss is a real guy, a guy you could go have a beer with. He’s trying to do right by everyone.”

Sterl founded Rustic Crust in 1996 with about 10 employees. Sales this year were expected to top $22 million, and the company now has about 100 employees, he told Business NH Magazine last month.

He could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Carmelle Druchniak, who handles public relations and communications for the company, said Sterl isn’t viewing the fire as an insurmountable hurdle.

“Brad is an entrepreneur. Where some people see setbacks, he sees opportunities,” she said.

He is expected to present and discuss his options with employees at a meeting in Concord tonight.

Pittsfield residents said yesterday they hope those options include staying in town.

Most people getting breakfast at Jitters Cafe on Main Street or grabbing a coffee or some sodas at the convenience stores in Pittsfield yesterday morning said they know at least one person who works at the factory. Several said they admire Sterl for donating pizza to relief

workers in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy devastated that state’s coast.

“They’ve definitely been here long enough to be part of the identity of town,” said Jitters owner David Stout.

Sheila Ward, a server at the cafe and coordinator of the extended learning program at Pittsfield High School, said the company has been a good partner, helping students get hands-on manufacturing experience.

“It could be devastating if they left,” she said. “Because we don’t have a lot of businesses in town, the businesses we have, we value. They’ve shown the willingness to go above and beyond.”

Many residents sounded like real estate agents, naming empty factories and storefronts in town they think Rustic Crust could fill, either temporarily or permanently.

“Most people are optimistic,” said Bill Boudreau, picking up a newspaper at the K2 Market on Main Street.“I think they’ve found a home here. We’re logistically a good place to be,” he said.

His son-in-law works for the company, and said he’s expecting to be back to work soon.

“They’re aggressive. People think they’re just a small company, but they work with the big guys. They can’t be out too long,” Boudreau said.

Meanwhile, in the warehouse down on Joy Street, a box-folding machine hummed and whirred as flat cardboard became three-dimensional, ready to hold Nutrisystem single-serve cheese pizzas.

A recent purchase, the machine was set up at Joy Street, not at the Barnstead Road bakery, because the bakery was too crowded, Cote said.

“Thank goodness,” he said. “It means we haven’t had to stop – and we have plenty to do.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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