Midnight Sun Wesley Case covers the city's after-hours scene

After fires, Baltimore restaurants face a long road to reopening

When Charles Village Pub reopened on Thursday, nearly four months after a grease fire closed the neighborhood hangout, it was more than a relief to owner Tony Weir. It was the end of a logistical nightmare.

“I didn’t think it was going to take this long,” Weir said. “There’s no company you can call and say, ‘We had a fire. Can you fix the whole thing?’ ”

Restaurant fires break out in an instant, but the road to reopening often takes much longer than expected. At notable Baltimore bars and restaurants that experienced fires such as Charles Village Pub, Blacksauce Kitchen and Peter’s Inn, rebuilding has taken months, not weeks, as owners navigated insurance claims and architectural redesign — not to mention the physical and mental tolls that come with losing your livelihood in a flash.

It’s the type of misfortune that often galvanizes supporters but can’t be overcome simply with elbow grease or money. It’s a process with many moving parts that requires hiring specialized contractors, installing new equipment, inspections and, ultimately, patience.

“We had to tell friends, ‘Look, this isn’t a barn-raising, where you’re all bringing a pot of stew and a cord of wood, and we’re going to knock it out in a day or two,’ ” said Bud Tiffany, co-owner of Peter’s Inn, a Fells Point restaurant that closed following a trash fire in late December.

Restaurants are prone to fires because of the kitchens — built-up flammable oils in the range hood igniting and open-flame flare-ups, said Peter Sunderland, professor at the University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering.

“You have open flames nearby, and all it takes is a fire in your frying pan to ignite everything inside that big hood,” Sunderland said.

Between 2010 and 2014, nearly 7,500 restaurants reported structure fires to U.S. fire departments, according to a National Fire Protection Association report from last year. Sixty-one percent of the fires were caused by cooking equipment. The fires were responsible for three deaths, 110 injuries and $165 million in property damage, the report said.

Weir was the only person at Charles Village Pub on St. Paul Street the morning of the May 1 fire. He had stepped outside to sign for a food delivery, and, when he returned, he saw a fire in the kitchen’s fryers.

“It was just a wall of flames,” Weir said.

The fire was out in minutes, thanks to an Ansul fire suppression system that kicked in and extinguished it. But the system sprayed water and chemicals all over, rendering much of the kitchen equipment useless, he said.

Thus began a round robin of service providers, each taking care of one job and leaving a new one for the next contractor. A cleaning crew restored the kitchen’s shell, but Weir then had to find a company selling new equipment. Once purchased, he needed to hire an installation crew. That company, however, didn’t do all of the electric work, so then came another contractor.

“That’s the biggest thing — learning how to coordinate all of the different parties,” Weir said.

Contractors’ schedules are often precarious, he said. A single delay causes a chain reaction of dates getting pushed back.

“This is where delays double and triple,” Weir said. “If there’s one hiccup, it kind of has a butterfly effect.”

It’s why Weir’s initial estimate of reopening taking a few weeks ballooned into three and a half months. An online fundraiser garnered more than $6,000 to help the pub staff pay their bills while out of work.

Peter’s Inn and Blacksauce Kitchen are still in the throes of those frustrations.

Blacksauce, a Remington restaurant that made a name for itself with homemade biscuits and meat dishes, shut down in March after an electrical fire.

Blacksauce owner Damian Mosley worked quickly to address the numerous issues resulting from the fire, but soon learned he was at the mercy of others. It turned into a waiting game for insurance payouts, contractors, new equipment and approvals from the city, he said.

“I’m not complaining about it. It’s just the reality of the situation,” Mosley said. “We were up against a lot of things I had never experienced before.”

At Peter’s Inn, there was another layer of complexity — the restaurant needed approval from the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) to simply rebuild what was there — an issue that tacked on three more months of waiting, Tiffany said.

“We had to hire an architect, which meant they had to submit [plans] and had to get approved before we could even move on to permitting,” said Tiffany, who owns the restaurant with his wife, chef Karin Tiffany. “It’s like peeling an onion and sometimes you wonder, ‘How long can this onion go on?’”

There’s an unseen emotional toll that’s impossible to quantify, the restaurateurs said.

Peter’s Inn was set to celebrate 24 years next month, and Blacksauce Kitchen’s brick-and-mortar location had built a devoted following after years of catering and selling at farmers markets.

“It was just devastating to see seemingly everything you’ve worked to accomplish and all the pieces you’ve accrued basically burned up,” said Mosley, who lost $70,000 of kitchen equipment. “We finally felt we had really great momentum in that place.”

At Peter’s Inn, insurance covered nearly all of the construction, but Tiffany said he still expects to pay thousands out of pocket for inspections, a liquor license renewal and any unforeseen costs. An online fundraising campaign that raised more than $20,000 for the restaurant in one month will go toward restocking the kitchen and bar, Tiffany said.

“It’s super humbling and also, now, it’s like we gotta make sure it’s even better than it was,” Tiffany said. “It’s more pressure to make it happen.”

Such pressure has been constant since the fires. Questions from customers, friends and family — both on the street and online — are supportive and well-intentioned but overwhelming, owners said.

Mosley, a “private and pretty prideful person,” said he hears it all of the time: When will you reopen? How are you holding up?

“I’m thankful as many people care as they do, but to always answer those questions — even when you don’t know the answers — it’s tough,” Mosley said.

It’s enough to make you want to avoid your own neighborhood, Tiffany said.

“It’s terrible. You don’t even want to go out in public because you know you have to discuss everything,” he said. “I understand they’re curious, but it’s just sort of your own weight to bear.”

Dean Small, president of Synergy Restaurant Consultants in California, said the process of reopening after a fire is “extremely stressful” on owners. While insurance dictates what’s covered in a fire, unforeseen and uncovered-by-insurance expenses often occur, leading to out-of-pocket costs for owners.

“They don’t know what the future holds for them. There’s so many variables — the insurance company, the bank, the landlord,” Small said. “It’s risk versus reward. Do they walk away? Do they belly up a ton of money out of pocket to get this thing open?”

All three owners had no plans to close. While Charles Village Pub has reopened, Blacksauce Kitchen and Peter’s Inn continue to work toward that goal, and their owners are finally optimistic about the progress.

Though Mosley held out hope he’d reopen by Thanksgiving, delays have made the goal “unrealistic,” and he now expects Blacksauce to be back in early 2019. With the restaurant now gutted, next comes executing the redesign plan.

“We definitely still have many months ahead of us. I just don’t know how many,” Mosley said.

Peter’s Inn is much closer. Tiffany said the ceiling and flooring have been reinforced, while the burned facade and front window were replaced. Once finishing touches are completed and final inspections from the city are passed, the hope is to reopen in mid-September, he said.

Like Weir and Mosley, Tiffany said he and his wife remain motivated to put the fire behind them. They want to get back to their passion — running a restaurant.

“It’s been eight months of worry,” Tiffany said. “[When we open] then it’s keep your head down for at least a year. Just make it work and make it happen.”

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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A previous version of this article misidentified the organization that had to approve the rebuild of Peter's Inn. It is the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.
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