WALLA WALLA — A Saturday morning fire at Mr. Ed’s, 2555 E. Isaacs Ave., left the restaurant closed indefinitely after extensive fire and smoke damage to equipment and fixtures.
Fire Stations One and Two responded to the scene just after 5 a.m. Saturday, with mutual aid from District Four. When firefighters arrived, flames were visible a block away as they came out of a roof ventilation, investigators said.
The flames were centered in the kitchen, where equipment was left melted and scorched. But throughout the restaurant the building was coated with soot and other related damage.
Co-owner Dan Givens said the sight left him with a "sinking feeling" because of his commitments to employees and customers.
"The first thing that hit us is, ‘Oh my goodness we are going to disappoint our people.’ We were unable to fulfill our commitments. Everything happens through your mind at once. What are the employees going to do. How much money do we have in the bank to keep payroll going. All those things run through your mind. And it is the sinking feeling of letting down your employees and the town. It is a real sinking feeling."
The restaurant was insured, but Givens was uncertain if the coverage includes payroll for his 20 employees, most full time.
"It couldn’t be at a worst time," Given said, referring to Christmas being three weeks away. "It’s just a tragedy. But we are pulling together and we will find a way to get through it."
The damage to the building was estimated at $175,000; the cause is still under investigation, fire officials said.
Co-owner Craig Potter and another employee had just started getting the kitchen ready before opening for breakfast when the fire broke out in a grill, according to fire officials.
The two suffered minor smoke inhalation and were treated and released at the scene.
Investigators are now looking at the grill’s automatic hood extinguisher to determine if it malfunctioned.
Also damaged in the fire were numerous Elvis memorabilia items. But the life-size statue of the King appeared to be salvageable, Givens said.
"Elvis himself appears to be alive but soot covered, most everything else is gone," he said, pointing out that numerous irreplaceable photos collected over the years had been lost.
"We had a lot of photographs of people’s collectible cars lining the ceiling of the restaurant. There might be a half dozen of those that are salvageable," he said.
Among the photos lost was a picture of Ed and Norma Volkman, the original owners who operated the restaurant from the early 1970s to mid-1990s.
The building had once been an A&W Root Beer restaurant, but the name was later changed to Mr. Ed’s by the couple.
Throughout Saturday, cars could be seen pulling into the restaurant’s parking lot, as people gazed in with a look of either disbelief or the uncertainty of where to eat.
Near the entrance of the restaurant, scorched items and broken glass were strewn about the concrete and asphalt, while inside, the stench of burnt plastic and other toxins forced their way out of what had once been a restaurant filled with savory smells and regular customers.
"We tried to call several dozen of our regular people and let them know not to come in and what happened and nobody was hurt," Givens said.
Outside the restaurant, on a wooden bench, a dry-erase board that listed the restaurant’s daily specials seemed untouched. The board also listed the hours: "Mr. Ed’s Hours Open at 6 a.m. 7 days a week."
Givens said fire officials told him it could take months for the damage to be repaired and the restaurant to be opened again.
"Our plan at this point is to rebuild and get running as quick as we can," he said.