Fire destroys hot chocolate plant in Wells River

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    Christina Layton, of Wells River, Vt., left, and Kelley Hennessey, of Woodsville, N.H., look over what is left at Sillycow Farms in Wells River on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. Hennessey worked at the hot chocolate manufacturer and Layton's fiancé works there. The plant was destroyed by fire early Tuesday morning. Hennessey said workers have come everyday to the site. "We are a tight knit family," she said. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Paul Cerutti, a fire analyst with NEFCO Fire Investigation, left, talks with Jared Martin, of Wells River, Vt., at the scene of a fire in Wells River on Wednesday, Dec., 22, 2021. Sillycow Farms, a hot chocolate maker, was destroyed by fire early Tuesday morning. Martin was the production manager at the plant. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/22/2021 3:44:23 PM
Modified: 12/22/2021 9:54:10 PM

WELLS RIVER — The owner of a hot chocolate maker whose Industrial Park road plant was destroyed in a fire early Tuesday morning said he hopes to find a new space to reopen and resume making the company’s premium hot chocolate powder mix by January.

Keith Lemnios, chief executive of Sillycow Farms, which manufactures the lines of Sillycow hot chocolate mixes, said on Wednesday that he is already searching for new space in the Wells River area where he can install manufacturing equipment that was ordered before the fire engulfed the plant, which employed 28 people.

“We have new equipment on order. The delivery schedule is for mid-January. We should be up-and-running by the end of January,” said Lemnios, who added that it is “certainly our preference” to remain in Wells River but given the lack of manufacturing space in the rural area “I don’t want to guarantee that.”

The fire, which was called into the Newbury Fire Department at 12:37 a.m., destroyed the facility right at the holiday peak of its manufacturing season when it is turning out thousands of its distinctly milk-bottle shaped containers daily of hot chocolate mixes.

The early morning fire, which involved between 40 to 50 firefighters from eight different companies, was one of the biggest that Newbury Fire Chief Jeff Morin said he has ever battled.

“Fires like that don’t happen often, thank goodness,” Morin said, who noted that the all-metal structure “held the heat in real well and really destroyed the building” so that by the time his crew had cleared the scene at 5:48 a.m. there was nothing but “twisted metal remaining.”

Morin said the cause of fire is being investigated by Vermont State Police but it appears to have ignited near an electric-powered forklift which is typically recharged every night. Another possible source of the fire, Morin said, could be propane-fueled unit heaters that hung from the ceiling.

“I talked with the manager and he said everybody leaves at 4:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. and everything was fine,” Morin said.

Lemnios said that processing and packaging is being temporarily transferred to contract plants in New York and Connecticut which will be overseen by Sillycow.

“We’re still in business. We’re using the equipment and labor from co-packers and production schedules will be managed by our team to assure quality. We’re filling our orders,” Lemnios said.

Launched in 2008 by Jonathan and Fran Rutstein as an extension of their Wells River-based mail order dessert sauce company Bread and Chocolate, Sillycow now produces about 2 million bottles of its hot chocolate powder mix in 12 different flavors annually. The company was acquired by Lemnios and a group of investors with Connecticut-based Delta Capital Group a few years ago.

Sillycow is one of the biggest employers in town, according to Newbury Selectboard Chair Alma Roystan.

“That’s quite a lot for a small town like ours,” said Roystan, “the only other would be Wells River Savings Bank. So it’s a substantial loss on many levels.” (The bank employs 56 people, according to regulatory filings).

She said a business like Sillycow is valuable because it helps support the tax base in town, which otherwise does not have much industry.

“We don’t have a lot of places that are zoned for industry, so I hope they find something adequate,” Roystan said.

As for Sillycow’s employees who suddenly have found themselves because of the fire jobless as Christmas approaches, Lemnios, Sillycow’s CEO, said that some are being sent to Connecticut to oversee production of the hot chocolate mix at the contract manufacturer.

“We provided Christmas bonuses so everybody can make it through the holiday,” Lemnois said, saying that until they can reopen a plant again “in the interest of our employees we are going to work it out where everybody is made whole.”  

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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