Out of the Frying Pan

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.”

Publicity of the disaster usually doesn't help get a restaurant back up and running, because follow-up stories that might alert readers the business has reopened aren't usually done. It is very hard for the average person to know, for instance, that Chez Max is out of business. Thus it's also up to the restaurateur to contact food writers and critics. Rascal House did this successfully, getting its reopening mentioned in the local papers. Shirttail Charlie's took a different media route, writing to the editorial section of the Sun Sentinel to publicly thank the Fort Lauderdale Fire Department for doing such a good job. The department was at the scene fourteen minutes after the call and is credited with saving the building.

Winning back customers is no easy task, however, especially if they were in the building when the fire occurred. At Rascal House the flames erupted at 9:30 p.m., smack-dab in the middle of dinner hour. Starkman makes light of the situation, claiming nobody panicked when the managers informed patrons of the situation. “A lot were just upset that they didn't get to finish their Reubens,” he cracks. But the diners at Rascal House were shielded from the sight of the fire, which started in the kitchen and quickly shot up through the hood into the ducts and electrical panels to the roof.

At Tantra you couldn't miss the fact that something was amiss. “There was a violent explosion around 7:30 [at night],” recalls executive chef Willis Loughhead. “At first I thought all the speakers in the house had blown. But then we saw this fourteen-foot arcing of sparks from the electrical box. People were screaming and the bartender was crawling over the bar toward the customer side.” Fortunately no one was hurt, with the exception of Loughhead himself, who suffered from a little smoke inhalation as he tried to battle the flames with a fire extinguisher. Owner Hogle commends him for being a hero. “He was very brave. He loves his kitchen and was defending it.”

“I don't know what the hell I was thinking,” Loughhead responds. “It was a natural reflex to grab the fire extinguisher, but it was stupid, too. The food runner had to talk sense into me.” Loughhead next went out to the sidewalk to calm the customers, promising them complimentary food and drink on their next visit to Tantra, whenever that might be.

As it turned out, Tantra reopened only eight days later, a miraculous record if you consider the building was without electricity for seven of those days. Nor did the short time frame allow Hogle to renovate the restaurant, a project he has been undertaking in dissatisfying bits and pieces.

But fires can have their silver linings. For Loughhead the upside was a cinematic moment. “I had to go back into the building with the firemen to show them the back door,” he remembers. “The power was out; there were flames and a tremendous amount of smoke. It was kind of like the Titanic, with beautifully constructed plates just left there -- at least those that didn't get knocked off by the firemen.”

Others are more practical than artistic. The fire that shut down Shirttail Charlie's for nearly a month, ignited by a malfunctioning dryer that had been in the “off” position, could've been much worse. Back in 1984 when the restaurant was built, alarms weren't required, so they weren't installed. Luckily for owner Larry Heyworth, a neighbor reported the fire. And now, says Beattie, the restaurant has smoke detectors, a detail that makes him more comfortable.

And for restaurants that have been victims of fire, there's the “don't know what you got till it's gone” syndrome. Beattie says locals were really supportive. “Everyone was calling and asking how we were doing,” he recounts. “People who had forgotten about us now remembered us.” Rascal House's Starkman puts it similarly: “People are actually even more devoted now that they've had to suffer without us for a month. It was a good recovery.” Forget about arson and insurance money. Sometimes it's just nice to be appreciated.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick