Out of the Frying Pan

Charred kitchens leave scars on patrons and owners alike

There's an old restaurant joke currently recirculating: Three restaurateurs are chatting about old times. The first recalls a fire in his place. Rather than reopen he decided to take the insurance money and retire. The second remembers how robbers broke in and vandalized his eatery. He, too, got out of the business to live on the insurance money. The third proprietor tells the other two about a hurricane that leveled his restaurant. Like the others, he chose not to reopen and used the insurance money as a pension. Then the third restaurateur takes his leave, and the first and second restaurateurs exchange a glance. “How,” one asks the other, “do you plan a hurricane?”

The reason for the resurrection of this little anecdote, it appears, is the recent rash of fires that have burned within the past six months in uniformly popular Miami-Dade and Broward restaurants. On March 15 Shirttail Charlie's in Fort Lauderdale broke out in flames in the middle of the night. That fire was followed by an early morning blaze, a four-alarm fire, at Chez Max on June 7. A midevening fire took out Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House in Sunny Isles Beach on August 6. Then, on September 5, the Beverly Hills Café in Miami Lakes was gutted by flames, and on September 10, Tantra in Miami Beach became the latest fire victim.

The differences between the joke and real life, however, are significant. For one thing, with the exception of Chez Max, where arson is suspected, none of the fires is thought to have been set intentionally. In fact most were electrical fires, which casts suspicion on our electricians and their qualifications but not on the owners of these establishments. Rascal House was the only one to suffer a grease fire, for which you can blame a careless cook if you like.

For another, three of the eateries in question -- Shirttail Charlie's, Rascal House, and Tantra -- have already reopened. Chez Max, it seems, is history, and Beverly Hills Café suffered so much damage that owner Mark Richmond estimates repairs will take a good four months. But Richmond's intention is to rebuild.

And finally, whether the fire occurs when the restaurant is open for business or in the middle of the night, it's just not a funny subject. At least not to proprietors who cultivate their businesses the way they tend to their children -- or their bank accounts. “The joke is that everybody starts fires when they're not doing well,” Tantra's proprietor Tim Hogle explains. “It was much more damaging for us to be closed.”

Like children, fires, no matter how big or how small, are undeniably costly. First there's the interruption of business. Though insurance companies provide what Michael Griggs, president of the National Institute of Disaster Restoration, calls “business interruption insurance,” the bottom line is that a business that doesn't operate isn't bringing in revenue. According to Griggs insurance companies will begin paying these policyholders faster, so the owners can call in disaster-restoration companies. But there's no guarantee insurance companies will make good on their promises; we just have to draw on typical responses to hurricane damage claims to understand the lack of compassion big corporations actually have. Even so, because fires result in loss of customers and income, most businesses without this type of clause in their policies end up extinct. Indeed the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., estimates that 57 percent of businesses suffering some kind of disaster never reopen. Of those that do make a comeback, only 29 percent are in business two years later.

Hogle had taken out business-interruption service at Tantra. Still, “it was very, very weak,” he admits. He also had kept a cash reserve in the bank for emergencies, but “it's amazing how fast that cushion goes,” he notes. “Just writing checks to have the furniture reupholstered nearly wiped it out.”

Then there's the cleanup. For that, mandates Bill Beattie, general manager of Shirttail Charlie's, you need to call in a good disaster-restoration company right away. “They bring crews in and start making stuff happen,” he acknowledges. “Stuff” includes recovering and resealing every surface so that the restaurant won't smell like smoke; professionally cleaning and drying carpets and upholstery damaged by water intake; and removing every item from the restaurant to be sanitized. Hogle says the company he hired “took every dish and every fork to be cleaned. If it was salvageable, it was washed. If it wasn't it was thrown away.”

Restaurateurs and their employees also need to take steps on their own to get the business back in shape. Disaster Restoration Incorporated, which runs a Website (www.disaster-experts.com) offering free advice, suggests that owners get involved with the little details, like changing the furnace filters, washing down plants, and cleaning and protecting chrome trim on kitchen appliances with Vaseline. Other musts on the to-do list: ordering new equipment, pronto. Jason Starkman, operating proprietor of Rascal House, claims he could've reopened two weeks sooner than September 12 but had to wait for two broilers and two griddles to arrive. “Anything that was damaged and needed to be replaced took a full month to arrive,” he says. Shirttail Charlie's Beattie concurs. “The ice machines had melted so badly you couldn't even read the serial numbers. We were scrambling to get parts.”

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