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Local chocolatier rebuilds facility destroyed by fire

Ribbon cuttting for the rebuilt Fannie May warehouse and distribution center in Maple Hts.

Debbie Stagan will never forget Thanksgiving 2014. It was the day that fire destroyed the 342,000-square-foot Fannie May/Harry London warehouse in Maple Heights. “I was in shock,” the wholesale supervisor recalls, “left wondering if you had a job.”

Last Wednesday, March 9, Stagan and the other 45 permanent warehouse employees returned to the rebuilt warehouse for the grand opening after spending nearly 16 months working out of a temporary warehouse in Twinsburg and the chocolate manufacturer’s North Canton headquarters.
 
It was an emotional day for Kevin Coen last week as he welcomed the employees back. All of the permanent employees were able to keep their jobs throughout the rebuilding process. “I see the spirit of the team here,” says Coen, president of Fannie May/Harold London. “They’re coming back home.”
 
Ten million pounds of chocolate is made in North Canton each year and the Maple Heights warehouse ships it all in four million packages to the company’s 85 retail locations in six states and Canada as well as to online customers.
 
When Coen got news of the fire, he was first relieved that no one was there at the time and no one was hurt. He then went into "team mode,” following the long-standing Fannie May motto of "Fannie May Strong," and ensured operations could continue. ”It’s about spirit and how we go about doing things,” he says of the motto. “When you’re faced with that, you deal with that.”
 
By Monday morning, the employees were being bussed to the North Canton facility. “We didn’t miss a day of work,” Coen boasts. “The [Canton employees] applauded as they walked in. There was such a sense of comaraderie.”
 
Two weeks later, the temporary Twinsburg warehouse was found, to which any of the employees were shuttled each day from Maple Heights until last week. After the fire, Coen made sure all existing orders were fulfilled and the 75 seasonal employees were paid through December.
 
“Everyone knew what to do and they just did it,” Coen recalls. “Everyone stayed, anything we had to do as a company we did it. [Warehouse manager] Brandon Baas was literally sleeping in his office. He and [director of warehousing and distribution] Ron Orcutt took charge.”
 
The rebuilt 276,000 square foot Maple Heights facility has better LED lighting and a new, relocated 32,000 square foot freezer. “It’s much brighter,” Coen says of the lighting system. “It feels much more open. As you go through the facility, everything has been redone.” The only evidence of the fire is a pile of dirt, marking the location of the old freezer.
 
Coen says there was no question the company would rebuild in Maple Heights. “For the employees, this is where they’re from,” he explains. “This is what makes it so special. This is a homecoming. They give 100 percent every day. And the city’s been great.”
 
Mayor Annette M. Blackwell, fire chief Vito Kayaliunas, fire captain Dan Sypen, police chief John Popielarczyk, police captain Todd Hansen and members of city council welcomed the company and the employees back at the grand opening celebration.
 
After a tour, guests were treated to a lunch. The employees were also given lunch and goodie bags full of treats from parent company 1800Flowers.com.

Even though Stagan lives in Canton, she is says she is happy to be back in Maple Heights. “It’s great to be back,” she says. “Everybody is under one roof.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 18 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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