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A Small Business Rises from the Ashes

Brad Sterl was out of town in March at the busiest trade show of the year when he answered the phone and heard, “We just called the fire trucks.”

The call came from back home in Pittsfield, N.H., where flames blew through the roof of his Rustic Crust frozen-pizza company. Volunteer firefighters from nearly two dozen towns battled subfreezing temperatures to control the blaze, draining the town’s water supply, which forced the closure of schools for the day.

Sterl had founded the business in 1996 and built it into a major employer in the town of 4,100. “It’s as close to losing one of my children as I could imagine,” he says. “Everything I owned was in this business. It still is, I  guess.”

Within four hours, Sterl was on a red-eye flight from California, emailing industry friends to try to figure out next steps to reopen quickly. At 1 p.m., he gasped at the 16,000-square-foot production plant. “Wow, everything you worked for just disappeared.” Not only was the business a loss, but there were livelihoods at stake in this town hard-hit by the recession.

By 4 p.m. that day, a contractor was sizing up the situation. Within a week, work began on a scaled-down temporary facility. Meanwhile Sterl paid about 80 full-time employees, who swept up, organized things, pitched in however they could and took extra training.

“We had families that relied on us,” Sterl explains, adding that he figures insurance will cover all or most of the payroll cost, estimated, at worst, under $500,000, in addtion to the $10 million-plus building damage. “They have bills. I figured it was the least I could do.” Small unemployment checks would’ve been “ridiculous for them,” as many worked 50 to 60  hours weekly.

Practically speaking, he didn’t want staff to quit, requiring replacements: “It would’ve cost a lot more to train them.” He didn’t outsource production because he didn’t want to share his recipe, lest it be stolen. He could’ve bought an automated production line to replace employees, but Sterl dismisses that; his niche is time-honored hand-stretched dough and hand-topped pizzas.

Rustic Pizza opened in April just three weeks later. “We’re back,” read a banner, “and we couldn’t have done it without you.”

Some people asked Sterl: Why not shut down and take the insurance money to start a new life? “I never thought about not opening,” he says.

So it goes. He hopes to open a bigger permanent plant by year’s end—and hire another 20 employees.

Prepare your business for natural disasters with three tips.

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