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Area entrepreneur looking to put pieces back together after house fire

By Heather Graves

DE PERE – Kelly Schwartz, the brains behind local start-up Fridge Jerky, said she was on cloud nine May 26 as she returned home from The Blueprint Green Bay Pitch Night – the culmination of the Greater Green Bay Chamber’s second installment of its 12-week startup accelerator program.

“I wasn’t at home (May 26) because I was at the Urban Hub giving my final pitch for my business,” Schwartz said. “You want to talk about riding an absolute utter high – I had samples there and everybody that tried it was like ‘Oh my gosh, I want to buy this. It’s amazing. The best jerky I’ve ever had.’ And then I come home and it was just absolute shell shock.”

When Schwartz and her almost 12-year-old son Ethan returned home that night, they discovered their house – the place they had called home for nearly 12 years – was on fire.

“I heard beeping, and I smelled smoke and thought somebody was grilling, because I could smell it outside,” she said. “It was dark. It was almost nine o’clock at night. My front door has a key code, so I unlocked the key code and stepped in with my foot. I couldn’t go any further, because I couldn’t breathe. When I pulled my foot back out, I saw the color of my floor underneath my footprint, because everywhere else was black.”

Schwartz said she doesn’t remember much of what happened next, as much of it was a blur.

“I dropped what I had in my hands, grabbed my phone and called 911,” she said. “I don’t even remember what she asked me. I think I gave her my address, and I just started screaming for my dogs. I remember trying to go back in to get my dogs, and I couldn’t get in because it was so heavy with smoke.”

Schwartz said she has never wanted to hear sirens more than she did that night.

“I remember hoping for a siren,” she said. “A police officer showed up first, and I don’t know his name – someday I’ll thank him – but he ran into the house to try and save the dogs… Despite him having terrible news about my pets, for him to put himself ultimately in danger to try and get my pets, I am forever grateful.”

Fridge Jerky

Soon after, fire crews showed up, neighbors began filling the street and the reality of what had just happened hit Schwartz like a ton of bricks.
Sadly, Schwartz lost three furry members of her family that night.

“Ellie is our Newfoundland,” she said. “She just turned two. She was my girl. She was actually like our unofficial mascot for Fridge Jerky, because she was like my taste-tester and came with me when I delivered jerky. I mean, she was by my side 24/7.”

Schwartz said she just rescued Oso, a 12-year-old pitbull from the humane society in January.

Fridge Jerky

“He was deaf and blind in one eye,” she said. “And then, BonBon was our lionhead bunny. My son was showing her at the fair. And Ellie, our Newfoundland, my son was actually doing dog agility with her in 4-H as well.”

Fridge Jerky
BonBon, their lion head bunny, also died in the fire.

Schwartz said while the reality of it all is devastating to her, the impact it has had on her son worries her even more.

“I think he was in complete and total shock,” she said. “I mean, it was literally like he was a robot walking around, like a shell of a human. I have never seen a human being like that before… It was probably because I knew him so well. That I felt what he was feeling. So I’m worried about his mental health. I actually went to his school and talked to the counselors, and I’ve been in contact with the school social workers. I know that I’m going to need help, too.”

The one thing Schwartz said she remembers from that night is the compassion and support she received from the first responders.

“The fire department battalion chief and the investigator that responded Thursday night were the most compassionate, caring men that I have ever encountered,” she said. “And despite how horrific Thursday night was, they provided comfort not only to me, but to my son and to my family. They were phenomenal. I mean, they were just phenomenal.”

Picking up the pieces

Schwartz said they are currently staying in a hotel – the plan for the foreseeable future.

What comes next, she said, is to be determined.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” Schwartz said. “I’m sure once I start communicating with insurance and whatnot, that I’ll be able to figure out what that looks like. I literally have no idea, and I think that’s probably one of the most unnerving components. I don’t know where we’re gonna live.”

Future plans will also include figuring out a path forward for Fridge Jerky, since all Schwartz’s supplies, equipment and merchandise was destroyed in the fire.

“My supplies are all ruined,” she said. “My T-shirts, all my mugs, all of the things that I use for marketing are gone. My dehydrator is gone. My meat slicer is unusable.”

Schwartz said she’s hopeful to eventually get back on track with Fridge Jerky, but how and when that will happen is unclear.

“I want to (continue moving forward with it) because it’s what I’m passionate about, and that’s what I want to do with my future,” she said. “It’s just right now, I feel like I have bigger fish to fry.”

As a participant with Blueprint Green Bay, Schwartz said she believes she will be receiving some grant funding that she had planned on using to secure commercial kitchen space in order to get her licensing and start officially selling her jerky, but said that step might have to wait and instead might need to use the funding on equipment replacements.

“I think that’s a tough pill to swallow,” she said. “Just because I feel like I’m going backward instead of forward. But hopefully it’s a small step in the right direction.”

Overwhelming support

Schwartz said the support she’s received from friends, family and the entire Greater Green Bay community has been nothing short of amazing.

“I think their encouragement means more now than what it meant on Thursday,” she said. “I feel like words are so hard to describe how thankful I am for people right now. One day I will pay this forward, and I don’t know what that looks like, but just the support and encouragement has been, it’s almost life saving. Because, I mean, how do you put one foot in front of the other when you don’t know where you’re gonna go? I’m just thankful for everybody who’s reached out.”

A Go Fund Me page has been set up for Kelly and Ethan Schwartz to help them get back on their feet as they tread through these unfamiliar waters.

As far as what they need – Schwartz said she isn’t even sure how to answer that.

“I honestly don’t know right now,” she said. “I literally just got new clothes this weekend. I don’t even know what I need. And right now I don’t have the space. With owning a food business, I love cooking, but I can’t even say ‘Yes, I would love a new pot.’ I don’t have space for that kind of stuff right now. Financially – I would love to just be able to have help replacing the equipment that I lost. I think my email is on my website, if they want to reach out that way. Honestly, I don’t have a concrete answer, and I think that that’s also what I’m struggling with. I don’t know what I need.”

More about Fridge Jerky

Schwartz said the inspiration behind Fridge Jerky’s flavors comes from her family’s roast recipe.

“I have been making beef jerky for years,” she said. “I actually use the recipe that I grew up with for roast. My parents had this really unique flavor, and I really wanted to start creating that nostalgic flavor for my family in the form of jerky.”

Schwartz said she never made jerky with the thought of potentially starting a business.

“I never believed that I could actually start a business until last summer when I went up north for a friend’s weekend,” she said. “The bag was gone in like three seconds and people were like, ‘Where can I buy this? Why aren’t you selling this?’ And it really kind of planted that seed.”
From there, Schwartz said she let her creative juices flow.

“I created Fridge Jerky, I created my slogan, I filed trademarks and I filed my LLC,” she said.

Earlier this year, when Schwartz was introduced to The Blueprint Green Bay, it seemed like a no-brainer.

“I applied for it and was so excited to be accepted,” she said. “Then I feel like the floodgates opened with people that are excited and people that want to try it, and the resources that they gave to us, and the connections and the content and the training. I mean, you want to talk about an accelerator program it was literally full-step on the gas forward. Just incredible.”

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