BAYAMON, PUERTO RICO — “Nothing can prepare you for the impact of two major hurricanes in a period of two weeks,” said Mario Somoza, president and chief executive officer, Pan Pepin, Bayamon.
When Hurricane Irma struck Pan Pepin on Sept. 6, it was without power for more than a week and running on backup generators. Fourteen days later, Hurricane Maria shattered everything in its path, leaving the entire island without power and little access to running water.
The storm had damaged much of the company’s operations. Its refrigerated warehouse took the biggest hit. Two of the walls and part of the roof were blown away, and the entire inventory was ruined.
However, production lines were kept intact, and the bakery had an effective contingency plan in place. Within two days of Maria hitting, the bakery had one of its five lines running and started making deliveries. A week later, all lines were functioning and distribution depots across the island were visiting customers.
Mr. Somoza credits the bakery’s robust contingency plan for making the healing process a little less painful. Pan Pepin had generators and fuel ready for every production line. It had water from a certified well on the premises and sufficient raw materials inventory to service customers effectively.
One of the biggest challenges was getting its employees back to work safely. Gasoline was scarce, but the operation procured a 6,000-gallon tank of gasoline that allowed workers to commute without having to spend hours in line at gas stations.
“Puerto Rico was already facing serious economic challenges prior to the hurricane, so this was almost like kicking us when we’re down,” Mr. Somoza said. “But the positive attitude and the resolve of our employees during this process has been inspiring.”
The bakery has more than 500 employees living throughout the island, all encountering different levels of loss. From coping without power and water to demolished homes, Pan Pepin employees have suffered and continue to suffer the effects of the storm all while showing up to work every day.
“Our employees have been amazing throughout this experience,” Mr. Somoza noted. “They have shown an admirable commitment and resolve to help get the bakery running and get us back to a regular operation as soon as possible.”
The company is trying to ease the anguish and frustration employees are experiencing by supplying them with resources they may not have access to. During the first weeks when groceries were scant, Pan Pepin served them breakfast and lunch in its retail shop and gave them free loaves of bread to share with families and neighbors. It let employees fill water jugs or tanks from the facility’s water source. In addition, its H.R. department is helping affected employees fill out the FEMA claims form, since most have no internet or communications service in their homes.
Throughout this time, the baking industry had been reaching out to Mr. Somoza asking how they could help employees. Pan Pepin was already thinking about establishing a fund, so the bakery created the Pan Pepin Employee Hurricane Relief Fund, a matching donations program. For every dollar donated, the company will match the donation. The fund has received more than $21,000 in donations but is still hoping to reach the $50,000 goal that was set.
“The support received so far has been amazing, and I am incredibly grateful to everybody in the baking community that has kept our island and our people in their thoughts and prayers as we work to recover from this experience,” Mr. Somoza said.
The company is also doing its part to help Puerto Rican citizens. The bakery has been using its food truck to serve hot meals and bottled water to people in remote towns. The truck goes out five to six days a week and reaches between 500 to 1,000 people per visit. For some people, this was the first hot meal they have eaten since the storm passed.
Looking forward, Mr. Somoza knows the rebuilding process will be tough for everyone involved and takes Pan Pepin’s responsibility to feed the citizens of Puerto Rico very seriously.
Repairs have begun, and insurance claims filed. The bakery is working with architects to replace the damaged refrigerated warehouse with a newly expanded design. It is also in the process of building a new bakery that is expected to open next summer.
As to how the storm will impact future business, Mr. Somoza believes it’s too early to tell. He noted that many people left the island after the storm, but it is still unknown how the island will change once stabilized.
“We will continue to invest in the future of Puerto Rico and in our people, and we have no doubt that the return will exceed our expectations,” Mr. Somoza said.