Iconic Wilmington, Del. Bakery Re-Emerges from Devastating Bakery Fire with a Little Help from SBA, The Del. SBDC & SCORE

From its 1952 opening until a 2015 Christmas Eve fire burned its building nearly to the ground, Serpe & Son’s Bakery famously won hearts in its Wilmington, Del., hometown and beyond with its family recipes and old-world-style commitment to quality. Serpe’s legendary breads, rolls, tomato pie and baked desserts are longtime staples at Delaware Valley family tables, as well as restaurants, social clubs, and community events like Wilmington’s annual St. Anthony’s Italian Festival. Over the years, Serpe’s following grew until Christmas Eve orders, alone, from the single-storefront business totaled nearly 1,000.

So, on Christmas Eve 2015, it was “business as usual” for Serpe’s, as long lines of the bakery’s devotees spilled out its door and onto the sidewalk outside. The brisk pace inside the shop was buoyed by the holiday spirit as customers hustled in and out, laden with fresh baked goods destined for holiday celebrations across the region. As another busy year for Serpe’s drew to a traditionally hectic close, everything was in place to begin 2016 on-pace for continued success.

Until, that night, everything changed.

Disaster Strikes

During the overnight hours after Serpe’s closed for business on Christmas Eve 2015, fire broke out inside the bakery. When the blaze ended, only a few walls of the bakery remained standing. Upon investigation, the Delaware State Fire Marshall pointed to Serpe’s oven area as the starting point for a Christmas Eve 2015 blaze that nearly totally destroyed the bakery’s building.

The devastation was complete.

So complete that Serpe’s owners – four brothers: Tony, Richie, Tommy and Dominic Serpe, who represented the second-generation of the bakery’s family ownership – were uncertain whether they could re-open the bakery. Rebuilding costs were sure to exceed the total insurance payout on their loss, a potentially insurmountable obstacle to re-opening the bakery.

Enter: the SBA.

The Road to Recovery

When the Serpe brothers met with their bankers at SBA-certified-lender M & T Bank as part of their damage assessment process, the path forward for their bakery was unclear. But the Serpe brothers quickly found themselves on the path to rebuilding their iconoc family business, thanks to the bakery’s successful track record and its banking relationship with M & T Bank’s Delaware team spanning generations – beginning when M&T’s Delaware team operated as Wilmington Trust. Immediately, the hometown Delaware M & T team understood what the landmark Serpe bakery meant to the First

State, beyond any M & T’s self interest in the bakery’s ongoing success as its customer. Likewise, M & T understood the power of its lending partner, the SBA, to fill the gap between Serpe’s insurance coverage and the cost to rebuild. M & T made the case to the Serpe brothers to rebuild, financing the insurance gap with a low-interest SBA-backed loan through M & T Bank.

Through its flagship financing program, the 7(a) Loan Guaranty Program, SBA makes it easier for participating lenders like M & T to make small business loans. By guaranteeing the lender that SBA will repay 75-85% of the loan amount should the borrower default, SBA empowers lenders to provide qualifying entrepreneurs like Serpe & Son’s Bakery secure financing on reasonable terms.

Through M & T Bank, SBA could make re-building the Serpe brothers’ bakery affordable.

In a blink, the Serpe brothers were “in.”

Immediately, M & T Bank’s SBA lending department set to work to back the financing that Serpe’s Bakery needed to rebuild. To make the financing process as seamless as possible for the disaster-strained Serpe brothers, the M & T team enlisted the help of Delaware Small Business Development Center (the “SBDC”) counselor Robert Rausch to guide the compilation of Serpe’s SBA loan application.

SBA advises entrepreneurs on everything from financing packages to business plans to day-to-day operations to breaking into new markets like exporting or online ventures through its own website, as well as through SBA-backed SCORE mentors and Small Business Development Centers in every state across the country. And, best of all, these services are offered free-of-charge or for a nominal fee to cover included materials.

Together with SBDC Counselor Bob Rausch, SBA lender M & T Bank, and SBA, the Serpe brothers secured financing to re-build.

The future was finally in focus.

A New Day Dawns

Once the physical Serpe’s Bakery re-build was underway, SCORE small business counselor and Serpe brothers’ long-time business contact Robert Gurlitz stepped in to help. With Gurlitz’ mentorship, the Serpe brothers used the months that the new bakery building was under construction to strategically re-think, refine, and modernize their operating systems, marketing efforts and product offerings. Among the updates they made to bakery operations were: a new Bridal Consultation Room in the bakery’s retail store; installation of a modern POS system; new demographically-driven marketing strategies; expansion of the bakery’s wholesale business; the addition of a grab-and-go refrigerated case; and the expansion of the bakery’s menu to include products from outside vendors like Talluto’s Pasta, BirchTree Bakers’ gluten-free products; and DiBruno Bros. meats and cheeses.

Finally, on October 28, 2016 – just over ten months since the devastating fire destroyed the original Serpe’s Bakery building – Serpe’s re-built bakery opened its doors for business to community-wide celebration. Grand Re-Opening events held in the Bakery’s parking lot drew hundreds and were broadcast live on Wilmington, Del. radio station WDEL. Joining in Delaware’s enthusiastic response to Serpe’s re-opening was U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D.Del.), who gifted the Serpe brothers with the American Flag that flew over the U.S. Capital in Washington, D.C. the day that Serpe and Son’s Bakery re-opened in Wilmington, Del.

It was official -- what Delawareans had known to be true for generations was, finally, true once again: Delaware's beloved Serpe and Son's Bakery was open for business and poised to grow.