For Eastern Standard Provisions Co., the road to survival after the pandemic undermined its business took a few unusual turns. Like through a house in Maine, where employees set up an ad-hoc assembly line and lived together for weeks.
A maker of artisanal soft pretzels, Eastern Standard has been forced to move its fulfillment center three times during the pandemic, finally settling into a 17,000-square-foot warehouse in Waltham, just in time to meet the tsunami of orders it anticipates from shifting its focus to direct-to-consumer shipments.
The company’s original target market dried up practically overnight earlier this year when bars, restaurants, breweries and event locations were forced to close. But the pandemic provided an unexpected boom, with Eastern Standard Provisions reaching more than 200,000 customers, and chief executive Bill Deacon predicting sales “on pace to do eight to 10 times" those of 2019, topping $14 million this year.
The workforce has also quadrupled, with the company now employing more than 50 people.
Eastern Standard Provisions was started in February 2019; its cofounders include the Kenmore Square restaurateur Garrett Harker of Eastern Standard and Island Creek Oyster Bar fame. The company was soon off to a rapid launch after landing a spot on Oprah’s list of favorite things in November, going from delivering 45 boxes of pretzels to more than 30,000 during the 2019 holiday season.
The pretzels, which feature a pillowy, brioche-like texture inside a traditional crust, are stored frozen and thaw in transit. Customers can either “heat-and-eat” or refreeze them for later. Eastern Standard Provisions sells toppings from French-toast-inspired sugar to truffle mustard sauce, and the boxes range from 12-packs for $12.99 to $99.99 gift packages.
Getting to the point where it could handle a sudden deluge of orders was no easy task. First off, in the early days of the pandemic, Eastern Standard Provisions took unusual liberties with the whole work-from-home trend: Half of its 10-person staff moved into a home in Cape Neddick, Maine, owned by Deacon, sharing the bedrooms and spare rooms almost camp-style.
“Basically, the entire house was the office space,” Deacon said. “We were cooking team meals at 10 p.m. at night.”
Deacon said “everybody was immediately on board” when he invited them to his home, the idea being that by quarantining together, they might better weather such an uncertain period instead of everyone working remotely and risking being out of touch.
“It’s one thing pre-pandemic to say, ‘Let’s hang out together and build a company,’ " said chief operating officer Salvador Dauvergne. "But it’s another thing to say, ‘Let’s live together for six months.’ ”
While the pretzels are made in a bakery in Cincinnati, most everything else happens in Maine. With two freezer trucks parked in Deacon’s backyard and an assembly line made of banquet tables from Home Depot, the employees received orders, planned shipping routes, and filled boxes with pretzels, salts, sauces, and branded tissue paper.
It proved a prophetic move, as the company probably would have struggled to handle the onslaught of orders if everyone was working apart. But the Maine operation was eventually overwhelmed by the sheer surge in sales: Orders quickly skyrocketed to as many as 400 a day, from 40. Available for direct order from its website or through Amazon, the pretzels had hit a sweet (and salty) spot in the pandemic, offering a comfort-food treat for stressed families or a gift basket from employers to help boost the morale of employees working at home.
“Things got crazy so quickly,” Deacon said. “People were trapped at their homes, online, searching for comfort foods. We offer gift boxes, and people were sending them to one another . . . grandparents, siblings, corporations.”
With the help of an investor, the company found a temporary 3,000-square-foot facility in Lawrence in April, with some workers going back and forth between there and the Maine house.
“We went from ordering five or six trucks a month to 33 trucks on products in April alone,” Dauvergne said. “There were times when we had to say, ‘OK, the truck is going to cost twice as much to get here faster from Texas, but we need salt to ship tomorrow.’ ”
In July, the opening of a Waltham warehouse iallowed a core group of employees to return to their homes and leave Deacon’s house.
“We care deeply about one another,” Dauvergne said, looking back on the months he spent living with co-workers. “There is an emotional side of going through COVID together.”
Among the new workers in Waltham is Saugus resident Carolina Alzate, who was furloughed from her job at the Eastern Standard restaurant in March. She has been packing boxes for the pretzel company, first in Lawrence and now in Waltham.
“I feel blessed to have found such a great job with a company that has been so good to me for so long,” she said. “I feel lucky right now.”