A version of this post by Bloomingfoods’ Isaac Smith originally appeared at the Bloomingfoods website.
March 21, 2014 was much like any other Thursday in Bloomington, IN for P6 producer Muddy Fork Bakery’s Eric Schedler and his family. Eric fired his hearth oven that morning, his daughter, Leda, had a playdate with a friend, and just before bed, Eric fired the oven again to prepare for baking on Saturday morning.
By 3:00 a.m., Katie Zukof, Eric’s wife, woke with their newborn baby—feedings in the wee hours were something that Eric and Katie were used to. However, when Katie made her way into the living room, she noticed that something wasn’t right.
“When I was in the hallway I saw an orange glow that seemed really strange,” Katie remembers. “The bakery was a total inferno at that point,” Eric recalls.
Eric woke to Katie’s scream, which he thought was about their baby. When he realized the child was fine, he had a moment of solace.
“It was actually a bit of relief to realize it was only our whole livelihood and not our child,” Eric jokes. However, the gravity of the situation caught up with him.
After arriving on the scene, the firefighters worked until 7:00 a.m. to contain the blaze. Eric recalls that the fire burned so hot that things around the bakery began to melt. The situation was so overwhelming that it took some time to sink in.
“I wouldn’t say I processed it at 3:00 in the morning,” Eric remembers. However, some things took no time for him to understand. “I knew, without even putting it into words or thoughts… I knew it was a total loss. I knew we wouldn’t be able to work for a long time.” The cause of the blaze was never determined with certainty, though Eric says he suspects ventilation from the oven overheated, causing the bakery to catch fire.
As things began to set in the next day, Katie says she was not ready to see what was left of their old bakery.
“I didn’t go down to look at the ruins. Eric took Leda,” Katie says. “I couldn’t bring myself to go down there.” Even though they were still reeling from the night before, the two lost little time in planning the future of their business.
Eric and Katie finished building their Bloomington bakery and home, largely by hand, in 2011, and they lived there for two years with their daughter, Leda. In essence, they started their business and their family in the same place. After outgrowing the tiny living space, they built a house roughly 100 yards up the hill from their bakery. This decision to expand went hand in hand with the desire to grow Muddy Fork Bakery.
“There’s a limit to what you can do if you are living in the same space as your kitchen,” Eric says. When they built their first bakery, the plan was to stay in it for at least five years. Eric says at the time of the fire they had not quite maxed out their space, but they were getting close.
The day after the fire, Eric and Katie spent a lot of time on the phone talking to their parents (Katie’s were already on their way from Connecticut to see their new grandchild) and to anyone they felt could help. After speaking with their insurance agent and an insurance adjuster, they were relieved to know that the structure was well insured, but there still were a lot of uncertainties.
Once word spread of the fire, community members and loyal customers wanted to know how they could help. Their chance came when Katie’s cousin set up a crowdsourcing fund using gofundme.com. Eric and Katie were reluctant at first to accept this kind of help.
“We weren’t sure at first if we were going to let them do it,” Eric says. At the time, they didn’t know how much money they would need, and they did not want to take more than would be necessary to get going again. However, after some discussion, they gave the go-ahead. In just four days the website raised nearly $15,000. While family and friends were certainly among the 169 donors, Katie and Eric did not recognize many of the names.
“I think we were just overwhelmed with just how generous everybody was,” Katie remembers. “That was moving and uplifting and gave us total certainty that what we wanted to do was to rebuild the bakery and as quickly as we could,” Eric adds.
They were not down long. Katie and Eric missed only three Farmers’ Markets after the fire. They only had granola to sell, but they were happy just to be back. After the fire, they quickly made arrangements to rent space in the Bloomingfoods commissary kitchen so that they could at least continue production of granola, granola bars, and muesli. They slowly added things at the Farmers’ Market, offering smoothies and even branching into onsite pizza production, which Eric says was incredibly popular and crucial to keeping them going while they were without a bakery.
The first step to recovery was to excavate the land where the old bakery was. Demolition day was an emotional one. As the crew pulled the bakery down, wall-by-wall, Eric, Katie, and Leda watched as one chapter of their lives ended. As sad as it was, Eric had to keep looking forward.
“I was sentimental about it. I always though that Leda would grow up and we would show her the little, tiny loft where she lived her first two years… [but] you have to let go of things like that,” Eric says.
Despite the incredible damage to the building, after careful inspection, Eric determined that he could still use the old oven, allowing Muddy Fork Bakery to bring bread to market for a few weeks over the summer. Katie says that as emotional as it was to see the old bakery come down, she was far more upset to see the old oven dismantled. While there were a lot of big changes happening, it was comforting to still have the routine of baking.
“Even when we didn’t have any building at all, we still had this oven and were still able to produce something in it,” she says. “It was really, really hard to see it gone.”
Despite the stopping and starting that accompanied the construction project, in early September, 2014 Eric finally got back to work. He lit several small fires in his brand new oven to kiln the masonry and prepare for that first bake on September 13th.
“It was pretty exciting to make that first big fire,” Eric recalls. However, even with all his excitement, part of him was still nervous. “I had to remind myself, even the old bakery didn’t burn down for four years,” Eric adds with a grin.
The new bakery sits over the footprint of the old facility and has many added perks, including a larger floor plan, a bigger oven, and a walk-in cooler. Eric says because of the increased capacity of his new oven, which can hold nearly twice the volume of the old oven, he had to learn the most efficient way to use it. After overcoming the learning curve, he says the bread is even better and they are selling more of it.
Both admit the fire was a terrible experience, but Katie and Eric both say it presented them with new opportunities. They were able to plan ahead and build in new features that will allow them to continue grow. But for now, they both say it is incredible to be back and to be doing the best work of their careers.
“There definitely was a silver lining,” Katie says. “What we have now is definitely better than what we had before.”