At GY&K, we’re proud to be headquartered in Live Free or Die New Hampshire. There’s a lot of inspiring work going on around us, and we decided to introduce a new feature called “Uncovering Innovation,” where we set out to discover some of the most innovative companies operating in our region.
Our first installment took us to Pittsfield, NH, home of Rustic Crust Old World Crusts and American Flatbread Pizzas. Rustic Crust and American Flatbread Pizzas specialize in all natural, Old World crusts and flatbreads that are as convenient as they are delicious. Founded in 1996, Rustic Crust offers a variety of ready-made crusts and frozen flatbread pizzas, each crafted with dough formed by hand, allowed to slowly ferment, double proofed, and baked in custom ovens for rich flavor.
We toured their facility, and sat down with their Founder/President and Concord, NH resident, Brad Sterl, for some exclusive insight.
GY&K: Can you tell us a little about how you got into the business from a personal standpoint?
Brad Sterl: I was partners in the Foodee’s Restaraunt operations that started back in ‘89. I became a partner there in, oh gosh, 1991! We grew the chain to about 23 restaurants. In 2000, the partners and I split up, and I decided to focus on manufacturing. We were actually already supplying restaurants at the time. We sold the restaurants, and I spent all my time on the manufacturing side. Eventually, I developed the packaging that we see today that allows us to take a natural product and make it shelf stable. Now, we actually get six months shelf life with no chemicals and no preservatives. In the beginning everyone told me it couldn’t be done. It took a lot of research, we worked with companies like DuPont, and a couple companies in Japan, technology-wise to come up with a way to make our packaging and baking process all work together.
Photo credit: http://www.perkins.org
GY&K: Cool, so how did Rustic Crust start as a business? How many people were here?
Brad: Rustic Crust actually started in the back of one of our Foodee’s restaurants in Concord (NH). What would happen is at 7 o’clock at night, we’d have a crew that would come in and work all night, handmaking the pizza crusts freezing them and shipping them out once a week out of our main freezer there. At that point we had five employees. In 1996 we saw the opportunity for Pittsfield (NH), it really looked like a great place where we could create jobs. So, we bought a building in Pittsfield, and we had between five and ten employees through 2005. Then, in 2005 we kind of finalized all of our packaging and decided to go into grocery stores. That’s when we realized it was time to really drive the business. So, we actually brought some outside investment into the company. During our 2005 and 2006 years we doubled the size of the business. We’ve continued to grow the company at a 40% compounded rate, we went from between eight and ten people in 2005 and now we employ just about a hundred people here. So theres been significant growth over the last few years.
GY&K: Is there any one moment or innovation when something changed and all of the sudden you saw this thing take off?
Brad: It was interesting, probably when we finally got the packaging to the point on the Rustic Crust side that we were very confident in the shelf life of the product so that we could go to market. Because the advantage for us became that we could ship a fresh product from one location to anywhere in the world. We’re focused on the United States, but it allowed us to take the product from one point of manufacturing and ship it efficiently without it spoiling. That was really when it happened, and as we started going to the grocery stores we’ve continued to grow because people like the product. It tastes great, all of our products are non-GMO, all natural, and we have an organic line as well. So, we have what consumers are looking for. I think every consumer in the marketplace today understands more and more about GMOs and what they’re doing to us, and why they can be bad for us. People are looking for clean labels, things without the preservatives, without the chemicals and so that market just continues to grow, that’s a big part of how this business has continued to grow. The next big jump for us was acquiring the rights to the American Flatbread brand in 2010. So, we already had the best pizza crust, and we feel we picked up the best frozen pizza side of the business. And, we’ve continued to grow both brands over the last few years.
GY&K: Where was American Flatbread previously?
Brad: It was started in Waitsfield, Vermont. George Schenk was the founder, and it stayed in Waitsfield until 2010 when we took it over. It was actually made in the restaurants. When we brought the business here, we built what we believe is the only wood fire production line in the United States. So, all of the American Flatbread is still made by hand, and still tossed by hand. Then, we came up with a conveyer-ized special woodfired oven that we built custom. It goes through that, and then we package it. It is made exactly the same way as it was made in the restaurants, same ingredients and same process. So, we’ve been able to incorporate that into making a great product.
GY&K: So, you talk about being all natural with no chemicals or GMOs but at the factory, you’re obviously using some high tech machinery. Is it hard to keep the balance between “rustic” and maximizing efficiency?
Brad: It’s a tough balance that we want to keep, you want to make the best product you can make, and almost 75% of our products are hand formed. We have a few small products that, because of their size, we use a machine to form them. But, it’s all about ingredients, it’s about the authentic process, it’s how we make our dough, age our dough, and then it comes down to the next step which is hands. What we’ve always tried to think about in the evolution of the company is, use hands where hands do the best job, and use machines where machines can do a great job. Typically, machines do a very good job in this business on the packaging side of things. Once it gets past the oven it can go into packaging, that’s where a lot more automation can happen. But, you just can’t make up for hands. You think of hand stretching for American Flatbread where it’s 100% hand stretched, there’s no machinery involved at all. We always look at the end product and never think about changing the product to meet what equipment could produce.
We captured a simple video of the manufacturing process, unable to show the complete process as Rustic Crust is currently seeking patents for multiple pieces of new equipment.
GY&K: What are some of the bigger challenges you face from a marketing standpoint?
Brad: When you think of marketing, we’re a small company so it’s about getting in front of consumers; how do you convert consumers? When you think of larger companies that are in the marketplace, what their marketing budgets are compared to what we have for national exposure. We sell our products nationally, we have certain markets that we have a big share in, such as the Northeast and the Carolinas. In terms of Rustic Crust, it’s about educating the consumer of who we are as a brand. It’s about educating them about our product, and once people try our product, they want to eat it. Same with American Flatbread, our American Flatbread happens to be a very expensive frozen pizza due to how it’s made and the ingredients. So, when you look at one of the other products on the shelf that might be $5.99 and we could be $8.99 or $9.99, consumers look at that and think about the risk. So we do a lot of events for both brands. We sample products, give away free coupons, so you’ll see us all over the country at events. We’ve done some TV, we’ve done some mailers to folks, but a lot of it is trying to engage with the consumer.
GY&K: Could you talk about being located in New Hampshire and what that means to you? How has your location affected your business?
Brad: I think people could look at it in every way you could imagine. New Hampshire was appealing because, well, I like New Hampshire! It’s where I wanted to raise my family, where I want to live, and I think it’s a great place to be. I happen to travel all over the country and the world, and I always want to come back to New Hampshire. That’s probably the primary reason we’re here. Additionally, where we’re located, there’s a very good employment base for us. Personal taxes are very reasonable in New Hampshire, business taxes, well, that’s another story. I think the resources that are available, both employement and region-wise and quality of life add a lot to what makes us successful here.
GY&K: Has being here in New Hampshire had any sort of influence on your brand?
Brad: I think the “Made in New Hampshire” “Made in New England” plays up well, I think there’s a story behind that. However as you move to California, people want to hear “Made in California” so we tend to talk less about “Made in New Hampshire” or “Locally Made,” but more for us it’s about real food made by real people. When you think of manufacturing and a lot of these industries, you’ll never see as many people working a line in these big companies as we have, and it is about these real people making these products with real ingredients that everybody can pronounce, everybody knows what they are. You don’t see on our shelves these different chemicals or conditioners, we don’t have them, we don’t allow them. That’s a big part of it.
GY&K: It certainly seems like the employees seem to take a lot of pride in the end product as well, and as Granite Staters ourselves, we’re certainly proud to have you guys here.
Brad: The employees are excited, we’re very fortunate to have the workforce we do. We have very low turnover, people like their jobs, we try to do everything we can for the employees who are here. And it is exciting, they’re engaged, they see the product on the shelves and I think best of all, it’s something special to work for a company that you’re proud of the products you produce. I think a lot of people have a job out there and they won’t necessarily say they’re proud of the product that’s produced. They don’t want to go out and tell everybody “Yeah, that’s a product we make,” and I think everybody that works for us is proud to see our products on the shelves, on TV, or written up in magazines or articles all the time. It’s really engaging for the employees.
Inspired by my trip to Rustic Crust, I decided to discover first-hand the greatness of their product. Using my grill to cook the pizzas, I created a couple crowd-pleasing pies for a dinner party. I documented the creation process using MixBit. Check out the video below:
For these pizzas, I used Cheesy Herb Rustic Crust and Basil & Sea Salt Ciabatta.
I fired up the grill, allowing it to get nice and hot.
While the grill was heating up, I sauteed a mixture of diced garlic, onion, green peppers, broccoli, and garlic spinach chicken sausage.
I then spread a little bit of olive oil on both sides of the crust, and allowed it to heat on the grill for a minute on each side.
I then spread the Rustic Crust pizza sauce, added a few fresh thinly sliced tomatoes, and layered the sauteed ingredients and fresh Cabot shredded Mozarella cheese on top. I then put the pizzas back on the grill, and allowed them to heat up for about 5 minutes, checking on it periodically.
The pizzas were cooked to perfection. I highly recommend trying this out sometime. The process was fun, and the end product was incredibly delicious. It’s a simple way to impress your dinner guests.
Luke Bonner is the Marketing Coordinator at GY&K Connect with him @LukeyBonner.