May 10, 2012, 1:15 PM

An Internet upgrade keeps Sarris Candies operating during a fire

The e-retailer lost no sales while a factory burned and chocolate melted.

Lead Photo

Sarris Candies, a family-owned specialty candy and chocolate in Western Pennsylvania that sells mainly to corporations and regional stores, survived a factory fire with no sales losses. The company attributes its good fortune to a technology upgrade meant to handle an ongoing increase in orders.

Within minutes of the fire’s start at 6:45 a.m. Feb. 3, a third of Sarris’ factory and headquarters was ablaze—all staff had moved across the street to safety in the company’s warehouse—and 50,000 pounds of chocolate were melting along with all of Sarris’ adjacent homemade ice cream parlor, says retail operations manager Norm Candelore.

While firefighters took charge of the situation, the company, which processes 500 to 600 online orders a day, never missed an order, Candelore says. “Even with the building on fire and burnt-up wires, the service coming in from the lines never went down,” he says.

Last June, the online candy retailer upgraded its Internet service to Comcast business class Ethernet lines. The change was in response to Sarris experiencing, over the past few years, a nearly 20% annual increase in the number of online orders. The retailer needed more bandwidth to keep up, Candelore says. “We’ve been expanding tremendously, in the last 10 years especially, and doing more and more quick fixes along the way to get the job done,” he says.

Previously, the company tried upgrading to three T1 lines, fiber-optic cables that deliver modem connections faster than typical residential phone lines. But Candelore says the T1 lines were expensive and gave Sarris only 4.5 megabits-per-second, or Mbps, of bandwidth.

In comparison, for a relatively small increase in price—Candelore and Comcast decline to detail costs—Sarris upgraded to a pair of dedicated Ethernet lines, which link fiber-optic cables into a network hub at Comcast and are 66 times faster than T1 lines, the cable and Internet provider says. Now the retailer receives nearly 10 Mbps of bandwidth on average, and in peak holiday time the company can increase to 100 Mbps if it needs to, says Candelore. The cables are designed to give Sarris uninterrupted Internet access because they are not shared with any other business or residence between Comcast’s routing center and the candy maker’s buildings, he says. One line goes to the factory and one to the warehouse, so when the fire broke out Sarris needed only to move its computers and personnel across the street to the warehouse and plug in to continue filling orders. “It’s really paid off for us,” he says.

With Valentine’s Day less than two weeks away when the fire occurred, Sarris didn’t have time to waste. And especially dealing with food items like chocolate, Candelore says, delaying shipments by more than 24 hours can be catastrophic. Fortunately, 90% of the manufactured edibles created the day before had already been moved from the factory into the warehouse, and the early hour of the fire helped minimize inventory loss.

“We were lucky, to be honest,” he says. He and his colleagues watched Sarris’ delivery trucks running up and down the highway behind the burning building.

“We didn’t have to call Comcast in at all to do anything,” he continues—Sarris needed only to reconnect broken wires (the fire was caused by an electrical short in the building) after the building reopened. The fire was out by 10:00 AM, though it took about three weeks to clean up, he says. Operations are now almost back to 100%.

Since the fire, Sarris, fearful that it might not be so lucky next time, has bought new servers and worked with Comcast to set up an offsite data backup system that is updated every five seconds, Candelore says. “It’s a family-owned business, we don’t think about fires or have a disaster plan,” he says. Sarris also plans to begin using Comcast voice-over-the-Internet services to handle customer calls and will work with the cable provider to connect its headquarters to another Sarris office in Pennsylvania via a single online network to better coordinate inventory and shipping.

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