Fire shuts down San Marco businesses but not owners’ resolve

Fire shuts down San Marco businesses but not owners’ resolve
Firemen from throughout Duval County converge on San Marco Square to put out a fire in the Beach Diner Nov. 2. Photo courtesy of Ward Lariscy

The owners of three local businesses in San Marco Square are hoping the community does not forget about them during this Christmas season after a fire temporarily put them out of business Nov. 2.

San Marco Bookstore and The Wardroom both opened on Black Friday, Nov. 29, with The Wardroom offering a big sale to its loyal customers. 

The Write Touch received more severe damage from heavy smoke and is currently doing its business out of the back room of Rosie True until further notice, said Carolyn Jennings, owner. With nearly $300,000 of merchandise in limbo until her insurance claim is settled, Jennings is unhappy that she is missing the Christmas season. However, her special-order business is fully operational, and she is taking appointments and holding office hours for people who want to order Christmas cards, wedding invitations or anything stationary related at Rosie True from Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, the Beach Diner, where the electrical fire started, has been gutted and will be thoroughly renovated inside from the ground up. Beach Diner Owner Barry Adeeb said he expects to reopen in the Spring, either “30 days before or 30 days after April 1.”

“This is a time to be ‘San Marco Strong’ because none of us planned for this, and this is our busiest time,” said San Marco Bookstore owner Desiree Bailey the day after smoke filled her independent bookstore, causing it to temporarily close its doors throughout November.  “People are going to have to make a marked effort to help reverse what’s going to happen over the next couple of weeks.”

“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time of year,” agreed Ward Lariscy, who owns The Wardroom, next door. “These are our profit months, November and December. We are hoping everyone will stand ready and come and support us.”

It was a typical Saturday evening around 8:30 p.m. in San Marco Square when firefighters from the fire station nearby on San Marco Boulevard smelled smoke as they sat on a bench outside. “One of the firemen was walking his dog, a dog he is training to be a search and rescue dog, when he said, ‘Gosh, there is a lot of smog or smoke out here. I’ve never seen that above the diner,’” recalled Bailey. But by that time, the alarm had been raised by his fellow firefighters as well as by a patron at Taverna, who noticed flames within the Beach Diner across the Square and called 9-1-1, she said.

“I’m glad it was a beautiful night and that the firemen were sitting outside,” said Bailey, who, after hearing countless sirens, learned about the fire in the 95-year-old wooden building on Twitter and rushed to the Square. “It’s very much a miracle that they caught it. One of the firemen told me if it had been 10 more minutes, the entire block would have been gone.”

Firefighters from at least five different stations quickly converged upon San Marco Square to extinguish a blaze that started in the kitchen at the Beach Diner, located in the 1900 block of San Marco Boulevard. “The Square was filled on both sides with half a dozen fire trucks. They even had an extended ladder with flood lights on it illuminating the roof,” remembered Lariscy. “They probably had six firemen on the roof trying to see where the fire was coming from, and they broke in all the doors so they could have access to the stores.”

In total five San Marco businesses – Seafood Island Bar and Grille, Beach Diner, The Write Touch, The Wardroom and San Marco Bookstore – were affected by the fire, with all but Seafood Island Grille receiving serious damage, mainly from smoke. Because there was a firewall between the Grille and Beach Diner, the seafood restaurant received only minimal damage from water that had been poured onto the Beach Diner from the roof, said Melissa Warner, owner of the Seafood Island Bar and Grille. “We just had water damage when they were putting the fire out. It was coming through the ceiling and the firemen had to pull the electric,” she said, noting there was some damage to her restaurant’s furniture, but that a cleaning company was able to quickly come in allowing the restaurant to open a few days later. 

Firemen seek to put out a fire that started in the Beach Diner and poured toxic smoke throughout neighboring businesses in San Marco Square Nov. 2.
Firemen seek to put out a fire that started in the Beach Diner and poured toxic smoke throughout neighboring businesses in San Marco Square Nov. 2.

In contrast to the neighboring Beach Diner, which had closed at 2:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon, the Seafood Island Grille was open for business and serving the dinner crowd when the fire broke out. “We still had patrons in our business when it happened. The firemen cleared out our restaurant, and we had to turn off our gas,” Warner recalled. “I was talking to a customer when one of our patrons said, ‘I think next door is on fire, and they’ve already called.’ The fire department from down the street was already here. They broke the glass door at the diner and smoke was billowing out. That’s when they said to me, you need to get everyone out.

“The response from the community has been totally positive,” Warner continued. “We are keeping the Beach Diner in our prayers as well as all their employees because they are trying to move their employees to their four other locations so they can continue to work.”

Barry Adeeb, owner of the Beach Diner, confirmed that he was able to place 80% of his workers – everyone who wanted to continue – in his four other Jacksonville area locations. Although the firemen initially believed the fire was caused by a toaster left on at the diner, Adeeb said a more thorough investigation was done four days later by insurance company fraud experts who came to the determination that the culprit was an electrical fire caused by a four-plex outlet that had four pieces of equipment plugged into it. “The fire was out in a matter of minutes, or it could have been a lot worse than it was,” he said, noting that in the 60 years he has owned his five restaurants, he has never had a claim until now.

Jeff Shelton, property manager for the building’s landlord, Burr Investments, said the landlord will work to install a firewall in the attic between Beach Diner and The Write Touch. He will also replace all the backdoors, ceilings and ductwork that were affected in the historic building. “The landlord will do whatever the fire inspector asks,” he said. 

At no time was the roof on fire, Adeeb said. Flames lapped at the ceiling of his establishment, but because the firemen arrived so quickly, the fire did not spread to the roof. 

He plans to rebuild his restaurant totally from scratch to “bring it up to the standards of the day,” he said, and the “silver lining” is that, although he did an extensive renovation to the restaurant six years ago when he moved his business into San Marco Square, he can now refurbish the entire place. He plans to shrink the kitchen into one-third of the space so he can enlarge the dining room from 55 seats to 75 or 80, he said. Other changes he intends to make include changing the front entrance completely, improving the waiting area and putting better seating outside undercover and not “just under an umbrella.”

“I had just renovated all four of my other restaurants and figured I would save San Marco for last because last spring I had just put in extensive air conditioning ducts and an exhaust system. Now I get to do a top-to-bottom restoration including plumbing, electrical, ceilings and everything,” he said.

“We feel badly that we had a fire and that it’s affected our neighbors,” he continued. “When all is said and done, I hope – the Good Lord willing – that it will benefit us all somehow due to the unfortunate event of this fire.”

Carolyn Jennings said immediately after the fire she received a lot of support from long-time customers and especially from her good friend Angie Sparks, owner of Rosie True, who allowed her to divert her deliveries to her store down the block and eventually conduct her business out of its back room. “I’m fortunate that this business has been here for 37 or 38 years and I bought it from its original owner, Doris Mellion,” said Jennings, who has owned the business for 13 years. “It’s had a customer base forever. We’re kind of the last man standing – no one out there does what we do.”

Lariscy said he received an offer from the folks at Theatre Jax to have their entire crew come over to help clean up. “People have offered to bring fabrics to the dry cleaners and to help us move,” he recalled.

“I have people in book clubs saying they will support us through the holiday season,” said Bailey. “They are saying, ‘Let us know what we can do. What do you need?’ It’s interesting because, unlike most times when people say, ‘Let me know if you need anything,’ the wording now is, ‘What can we do?’ It’s a different message. They are saying, ‘We’re ready to help you. What can we do?’

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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