It was lunchtime at Nardi Breads Inc., but no one was thinking about eating in the dark, cold cavernous commercial bakery — not on the seventh day without power, the seventh day of wondering how the 103-year old business would survive.
Owner Charlie Nardi, who turns 79 this month, along with his son and partner, Craig Nardi, and an employee, Erik Pfeiffer, were busy scraping dozens of unbaked sheet pizzas into plastic garbage bags. The pizzas, made for the Halloween rush, were headed for the dumpster along with thousands of pounds of bread and dough that should have found its way to restaurants by now.
Charlie was 11 when he ran out of a burning tent in the Hartford circus fire of 1944, not far from his house, while his father worked. As an adult, he would guide the business through North End riots, a move to larger quarters in East Hartford, the devastating recession of 1990-92, a forced exit to South Windsor after East Hartford redeveloped the block, and most recently the downturn that will not end.
"We do whatever we have to do to survive," said Nardi, sharp and energetic as ever.
Like many small business owners, the Nardis were already looking at huge losses from wasted inventory and lost sales by the time Friday dawned. But it was worse than that.
"We've got to send out a perishable product every day," Nardi said.
That means, in the bakery trade, as their main competitor Angelo Strano pointed out, "You can have a customer for 30 years and if you leave him without bread for three days, he'll never come back."
That was the big worry — losing customers. By midweek, the Nardis had arranged to buy bread from that longtime rival, Strano Bakery of Manchester — a humbling situation, all the harder because Angelo Strano's father once worked for Charlie Nardi.
At least one customer, unable to reach Nardi's those first couple of days, had already told Craig Nardi not to bother. "We've done business with them for years … and now they don't want to talk to us."
Without help from Strano, there would have been no hope. Strano said Friday that he can't believe he's keeping his arch competitor alive, knowing the Nardi customers would willingly come to him. Strano, who lost power for a day and a half, had tried to call Charlie Nardi early in the week, with no luck.
"I drove down to his bakery. I knocked on the doors. They were locked," said Strano, who's 52, a couple of years older than Craig Nardi.
Craig came to the door and said sorry, we have no bread.
"I said, 'I'm not looking for bread, I'm looking to offer you bread,'" Strano said.
It was more than a touching moment in the depths of a crisis. It was a reunion. Strano's father broke off from Nardi when Strano was a teenager. All the Stranos worked for Nardi — his brother, his father, his mother. "So I felt a piece of my heart."
Charlie Nardi, in fact, is Strano's godfather. "He confirmed me," Strano said. But after the business split, "We had no relationship whatsoever. … Years went by and that's the way it stayed."
Times were already tough at Nardi's before the storm and blackout, with sales off by a third since the start of the recession. "The doors were open, we weren't making a ton of money but we were making enough to pay our bills," Craig Nardi said. "Some of our employees were taking home more per week than we were, but that's OK when you have a business."
The employee count is about a dozen, down from nearly 40 in the East Hartford heyday, when the company also operated Nardi's Deli. They could not afford to pay their idled employees this week.