Editor's note: Stephen LaPenta, owner of The Bridge, a tofu manufacturer on Washington Street, says the damage to his building has been repaired and his business was up and running again Wednesday morning.
One of Connecticut's premiere producers of artisan-quality tofu is temporarily shut down after a carpet-cleaning van collided with a car, plunging the van through the front of the building and narrowly missing a worker inside.
Business was abruptly halted Sunday at 10 p.m. at the tiny plant called The Bridge in Middletown, located just past the railroad trestle bridge on Route 66. The business has been making artisan-quality tofu for more than 30 years in a milk-white cinderblock storefront on Washington Street.
“I was getting ready to go to bed when there was a collision between a car and truck. The truck was halfway wedged in [the building],” says The Bridge driver John Brush, who lives in an apartment in a house set back from the building.
“We have eight people working there and one was in the building when it happened. He just narrowly missed being hit. [Rick Albee] had just left the spot when the truck hit,” Brush says.
Owner Stephen A. LaPenta has run this small-scale tofu and soybean products business since 1978.
“One guy works the Sunday evening shift from 6-12 p.m. He was not hurt. We’re fortunate and lucky it wasn’t two minutes earlier. He was on the other side of the building [when the crash occurred].”
“I’m certainly shocked in terms of someone being nearly killed,” he says. “The business is totally disrupted for who knows how long.”
LaPenta, who lives not far from The Bridge, was out at the scene half the night. When he arrived, he was surprised at what he saw.
“The truck went right in the door; it was wider than the door.”
Police are still investigating the crash, which involved four passengers who were sent as a precaution to Middlesex and Hartford hospitals Sunday night. All have since been released.
LaPenta experienced a range of emotions upon seeing the damage.
“It was shocking and I guess it made me a little angry, a little concerned,” LaPila says.
Monday morning, two giant stainless-steel vats of soybeans could be seen through one of the building’s two remaining plate-glass windows.
“Some equipment was damaged, the building is structurally unsound in the front, naturally,” says Brush.
But both men are eager to get the insurance adjustor and city inspectors out there. “We need to clean all the tables and get the equipment out,” says Brush. “A lot of people depend on us. We need to get up and running again.”
This modest structure with an unassuming sign, a red circle with a simple white pergola in relief, with the words, “The Bridge,” and “598” is familiar to passersby on busy Route 66. Drivers can sometimes glimpse a worker crafting handmade tofu, seitan, amisake (a drink made from fermented rice) and tofu salad (made with chopped carrots and celery) through the large glass storefront window.
LaPenta ships 6,000 pounds of tofu weekly.
The Bridge’s products are stocked at It’s Only Natural Market in Middletown, served at Wesleyan University and the University of Connecticut, and Whole Foods stores, restaurants, cafes and markets throughout the Northeast.
In late 2009, The New York Times took note of the purveyor in its Quick Bites section.
LaPenta is optimistic about reconstructing the building just as it was as soon as he’s allowed. “My intention is to get it up and running as soon as possible. There’s work to be done. Tomorrow we’ll clean it all up. Then we’ll just go from there.”
“We don’t have a plan to change anything because the building is what it is. It’s under 1,000 square feet [in size] and because of the regulations on a flood plain [near the Coginchaug River], we can’t expand it.”
Drivers often speed on this portion of Washington Street, a four-way traffic stop where busy Route 157 turns into Bernie O’Rourke Drive.
“The speed limit is usually ignored,” LaPenta says. “People speed up to 20 to 30 mph over the speed limit.”
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