November 5, 2011
SOUTH WINDSOR —
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.
It was a grim scene. They had spent days arranging shipments of rolls made elsewhere in a scramble to save Nardi's — a company that's seen more than its share of threats since Charlie Nardi's Italian immigrant father opened the doors as a young man on Front Street in Hartford. Charlie Nardi can remember the place wiped out in the 1936 flood, then again in the hurricane of '38.
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.
But this is a father and son who see the bright side of things. Sitting under a large photo of St. Louis Cardinals Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial, Charlie Nardi said he's "been really lucky this year," with his Cards and his Green Bay Packers both winning championships.
Even though Craig's Glastonbury house — where his parents live — was without power for much of the week with massive tree damage in the yard, and even though they had slept maybe three hours a night, the atmosphere was oddly upbeat Friday morning.
Drivers came and went after delivering Strano bread. "Tomorrow night," Charlie Nardi told one of them, "maybe we'll be lucky."
A customer who lives in South Windsor stopped by for a pick-up. "I have hard rolls I can give you instead of hamburg rolls," Craig said.
The customer, Scott Marshall, who owns the Yarde House in South Hadley, Mass., took a look. "Those are fine," he said.
They talked about generators, but Marshall knew perfectly well it would cost too much to buy back-up power for a baking operation with a huge walk-in freezer and ovens the size of vehicles. "What are you going to do, get a $50,000 fuel cell in here?" he asked rhetorically.
As noon came and went, Craig and Charlie Nardi showed more anger toward CL&P. Nearby homes and businesses had power restored, but not them. Craig talked with a woman at CL&P, who said the priority was to restore neighborhoods.
"You mean to tell me they couldn't have come up here and gotten these businesses up?" Charlie exclaimed. "There's no trees here."
That's the feeling at a lot of businesses across the central and western part of the state, and one firm — The Asylum LLC, a Canton hairstylist — filed a lawsuit against CL&P Friday in Superior Court in Hartford, charging negligence.
All of that will be sorted out in the months to come. On Friday, the Nardis just wanted to get back to regular work, a 7-day-a-week grind.
How strong is their work ethic? In 1968, on the night after Martin Luther King's assassination, an angry crowd approached Nardi's, then located near the intersection of Main Street and Albany Avenue. "My driver comes back, he says 'Charlie, you better go out there. I've got a problem. These guys want to tip over the truck.'"
He approached a leader of the crowd. "I said, 'Let me tell you something. My father died a couple of years ago and I couldn't close the bakery. I'm going to work today.' He looked at me and he said, 'You're all right, white man.'
"We were part of the neighborhood."
Years later, the bakery left for East Hartford, not because of the neighborhood, he said, but for a larger building. The move to South Windsor in 2001 ended most of the retail business because it's a commercial building in a commercial district.
And there they were, three men glumly dumping pizza trays when a loud, dull thud sounded at 12:40 p.m. One second later, the lights went on.
Craig raised his arms. "Oh my God, we got power!"
"Oh, thank God!"
"Call in everybody," Pfeiffer said, naming a key man — Victor. "You've got his number."
Craig checked and the phone was still dead. A minute later: "The phones are working! We're back in business!"
Charlie entered a newly bright freezer room, still not emptied of bread. "I'm very appreciative to all my customers for understanding, and being good," he said slowly.
The financial crisis was far from over. But the ovens would soon be on. "In about an hour, we're all gonna be sweating," Craig Nardi said. "But I don't care, I'm so happy."
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