A decades-old natural products retailer in New York City has been learning the value of starting from scratch over the past few months. Westerly Natural Market, perched on the corner of 54th Street and Eighth Avenue, didn’t have much choice in the matter after an electrical fire rendered the building untenable for business. CEO Michael Toback had to ask himself a tough question: Do we clean and make repairs, or cut our losses and start anew? “As I walked around my store, I realized the smell was everywhere and that we could not sell food in this environment. I realized the store had to be stripped to its concrete core and rebuilt,” he says. During this process of rebirth, those involved with the store came to appreciate the qualities of the natural products community in a whole new way.

The fire occurred on the evening of February 27, 2011, a Sunday. According to Toback, an electrical component in the equipment room overheated, resulting in a slow, smoldering fire. At about 10:00 p.m., employees saw smoke beginning to filter through the ceiling tiles of the store. Smoke alarms went off, and the New York City Fire Department was alerted via 911. Then, the staff began evacuating customers and themselves from the store. “By coincidence, this was the evening of the Academy Awards, and business was light and the staff had been reduced. So, we were able to clear the store of customers and staff in only two to three minutes,” Toback says.

The fire crews showed up quickly. The first to respond, in about three minutes, was the same company honored by President Barack Obama for its losses on September 11, 2001 in his recent visit to New York City. This company started gaining control of the fire; others soon showed up, and about 30 minutes later, the fire was history. But, the impact of that night on Westerly Natural Market was just beginning.

While everyone was evacuated safely, the fire brought disastrous results for the retail building itself. Toback explains that a picture of the store at that point would have shown very little damage. It was the smoke that had an impact. “The principle characteristic of our fire was that there were no flames to be seen, but black, acrid smoke went everywhere. The smell was just overwhelming, and sickening,” Toback says. Every corner of the store was afflicted with this smell, according to Toback, including food products, refrigerators and computers, all the way up to the ceiling tiles.

Westerly staff, left to right: George (maintenance dept.), Juan (dairy buyer), Harry (general manager), Baffour (produce dept.), Maria  (health and beauty buyer), Tashi (shift manager), Christina (office assistant), Michael Scanlon (shift manager), Michael Toback (owner), Erica (order dept.), Mioara (office manager), Ramon (shift manager), Ellis (sports buyer) and Angel (grocery dept.).

When it became clear that the best course of action was to replace the interior rather than restore it, Toback hesitated for the sake of his employees. “I have over 100 employees, and many are now in their second decade of working at Westerly Natural Market. Completely rebuilding the interior would take much longer, and I wasconcerned whether I could protect my employees financially during this longer rebuilding period.” Once their insurance carrier assured Toback that employees would be covered, the rebuilding project was good to go.

The final result of that project was a grand re-opening scheduled for July 2011. But it was the helping hands and well-wishes along the way that proved to be the silver lining to the store’s setback. Toback describes his amazement at the offers of assistance that have flowed in since the fire. “Customers, employees, suppliers, vendors, neighbors and companies have come forward to offer support,” he says. For a store that has done business in its current location since 1966, misfortune has turned into an affirmation of customer loyalty.

“It is really gratifying to be approached by people I don’t even know and offered condolences for the fire,” says Toback, adding that this local response shows how the natural products industry is valued in the communities that support it. Customers have also flocked to the store’s Facebook site, making comments summarized by, “We miss you, we love you, please reopen quickly,” according to Toback. “How many other industries can count on that kind of support?” he says. The store’s suppliers, meanwhile, “have been tremendously supportive and patient as we rebuilt the business we share with them,” as Toback puts it.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Toback was understandably focused on the negatives. While he still wouldn’t recommend anyone else endure a business-disrupting fire, Toback now feels the store is going to rise from the ashes (or extensive smoke damage to be precise). He states, “The results have been fantastic, and the new Westerly Natural Market will soon start its next decade better than ever!” He describes the future of the business as “renewed and improved,” and something the whole community, from loyal vendors to loyal consumers, can be proud of. WF

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, August 2011