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After fire, Citrus Grillhouse to reopen with new look in October

Photo: Citrus chef Scott Varricchio following the fire.

Citrus Grillhouse chef/owner Scott Varricchio and partner Matt Gaston said their restaurant will be out of commission until October in the aftermath of a kitchen fire in the early morning hours of March 27 – a blow to island diners who patronize the popular seaside spot.

On the plus side, Varricchio said, come October, customers will walk into a new-and-improved Citrus Grillhouse with a more open layout, lighter decor and quieter setting.

“We’re moving quickly, trying to do everything we possibly can to get things cleaned up so we can start the makeover,” Gaston said last week as a ServiceMaster crew donned safety masks and continued to remove soot-covered, water-soaked floors, walls, ceilings and insulation.

“We’ve got to re-do the entire interior,” he added, “but we need to get everything out first.”

By the end of last week, the restaurant had been gutted, except for the kitchen area. Varricchio said he had to wait until fire inspectors finished their investigation before pulling out the kitchen equipment,

Officials have now wrapped up their inspection of the premises and given permission to demo the kitchen.

The heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system also must be replaced, the owners said, adding that they’ve hired an industrial hygienist to test the restaurant’s remains for soot, fire-retardant chemicals and other pollutants that could present a hazard.

“When we start the rebuild,” Gaston said, “we’re going to start with a clean slate.”

Lt. Sandy Seeley, a fire inspector with the Indian River County Emergency Services Department, said the state fire marshal investigating the incident told her the blaze appeared to be an accident.

According to Varricchio, the fire was caused by a kitchen employee who, while cleaning up after the restaurant had closed, unknowingly turned on the burner where a five-gallon pot containing oil strained from the fryer had been placed to cool.

He said the pot was so large nobody noticed the burner, much smaller in diameter, was lit before the staff left for the night at 10:30 p.m. March 26.

The owners said the fire caused the 8-year-old restaurant to lose power, so they’ve been unable to view surveillance video to determine exactly when the blaze started.

It wasn’t until 5:30 a.m. that a resident of one of the apartments above the restaurant called 911 and reported seeing smoke in the courtyard. Firefighters responded immediately and needed fewer than 30 minutes to extinguish the blaze.

“Putting out the fire was no big deal, because it hadn’t really spread,” Varricchio said. “The hood system, which is designed to suppress a kitchen fire, did its job. The flames went up through the hood and there really wasn’t much fire damage.”

The main damage was done by water – some from the sprinkler system, most from PVC water pipes in the ceiling that burst when exposed to the fire’s extreme heat for several hours.

“The fire was contained to a relatively small area, but it got hot, hot, hot in here,” Gaston said, pointing to charred-black interior of the stainless steel hood. “Eventually, the pipes cracked and the water kept pouring in.”

Varricchio said the steps at the entrance of the restaurant, located at 1050 Easter Lily Lane, resembled a “waterfall” when he opened the front door.

There was no significant damage to the restaurant’s exterior dining area, the owners said, or to the apartments that share the building – except for some smoke seepage along 2 feet of a baseboard in a vestibule.

“Thank God the damage didn’t go beyond the confines of the restaurant,” Varricchio said. “It could have been much worse, but Bob McNally and Palm Coast Development built a very safe building.”

Now, Varricchio and Gaston are planning to build a lighter, brighter restaurant with a number of upgrades.

“We’ll get a new kitchen out of it, one with new equipment, a new hood system and a totally new layout,” said Varricchio, the restaurant’s chef. “And we’ll fix some things that we, as restaurateurs, have noticed over the years. We’ll also address some of the suggestions made by our customers.”

To create a fresh new feel, the owners say they will install a new, light-green, epoxy concrete floor with a non-skid, slip-resistant coating, a new acoustically designed ceiling and LED lighting.

The city building code prevents the owners from expanding the restaurant’s seating capacity, but they plan to remove a wall and add a six-seat dining bar just inside the front door – something they say they can accomplish by re-configuring the dining room and interior bar area.

Varricchio said the revamped restaurant will still embrace an open-kitchen concept, but the design will be more “functional” for the staff and more “visually pleasing” to diners.

He said the new kitchen equipment is expected to arrive this summer and he hopes to have a kitchen, bar and wait staff in place a month before the restaurant reopens.

“We were having a good season, so this definitely hurts,” Varricchio said, adding that the restaurant’s busiest stretch is usually from Halloween through Mother’s Day. “We’re fortunate that the fire didn’t happen in October.”

The owners also are fortunate to be well-insured: Varricchio said the restaurant is covered by Lloyd’s of London against fire loss and business interruption.

The coverage, though, won’t make up for the wages lost by the restaurant’s 60 employees – some of whom have helped with the cleanup, others who’ve been forced to search for new jobs.

“It’s a life-changing event,” Varricchio said. “I don’t wish this on anybody. When you’ve done this for so long and spend so much time with employees, they become your extended family. You don’t want to see them hurting.”

Employees said restaurant managers have been helpful in providing them with leads for other jobs in the area.

“It’s a net negative for us,” Varricchio said of the fire that will force the restaurant to remain closed for the next six months. “But with the changes and improvements we’re going to make, it’ll be a positive for our customers.”

Some of those customers have expressed their sorrow and support in phone calls, cards and letters, Varricchio said.

The partners also received a gift from Drew Noel Marin, a Sarasota artist whose paintings adorned the restaurant’s walls. Having heard about the fire, she presented them with her latest work – a painting of a single flower bud sprouting from the ground entitled “Rebirth.”