A fire burned Brad Sterl’s pizza-crust manufacturing plant to the ground, but couldn’t destroy this entrepreneur’s can-do spirit.
It was March 2014, and Brad Sterl was enjoying a relaxing dinner with his wife after a long day at the Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim, CA. Suddenly, Sterl found himself facing every entrepreneur’s worst nightmare. A frantic phone call from back home in Pittsfield, NH, informed him that Rustic Crust, the pizza-making company he’d built from scratch, was on fire.
“This was as close as I can imagine to losing one of my children,” Sterl recalls. “My wife thought I was going to have a heart attack. I’d nurtured my company and put everything I had into it. Now everything I’d invested in was burning to the ground.”
Sterl’s efforts had paid off. After starting Rustic Crust in 1996 as a side business to supply his chain of Foodee’s Pizza restaurants, in 2000 he sold the restaurants to focus on manufacturing. By 2003 he had developed proprietary packaging that allowed his all-natural pizzas and crusts to remain shelf-stable without the need for preservatives. By 2003 he had grocery and specialty store clients, including Whole Foods and Hannaford grocery stores, throughout the Northeast.
But retailers’ slotting fees and the high cost of carrying inventory meant Sterl needed capital to expand. He began exploring his financing options and in 2005, found CEI Community Ventures in Portland, ME. The small venture capital firm with a socially responsible focus was investing in businesses creating jobs in low-income areas. Since Sterl had chosen Pittsfield with an eye to creating jobs in the community (population about 1,700), it was a perfect match.
With CEI’s backing, Rustic Crust was really cooking. Since 2005, its annual compounded growth rate had averaged 40 percent. In 2010, the company acquired American Flatbread, a maker of frozen premium pizzas. By 2014 it was the second-largest employer in Pittsfield.