St. Petersburg Times--Citrus County Edition

Fire closes Joe's Family Restaurant for a while
A suspected electrical fire sends the Thanksgiving fixings and the friendly crowds elsewhere.
By SUZANNAH GONZALES
St. Petersburg Times
published November 28, 2002

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INVERNESS -- It's the kind of place where the servers know the customers' names and what their orders will be. The kind of place where people take the time to get to know one another.

When 19-year-old server Holly King graduated from Citrus High School, customers gave her money. "I'm here when I'm not working," King said. It's "my home away from home."

"Our customers adopt us just like we adopt them," said Stephanie Pitts, 24, another server.

For many, Joe's Family Restaurant is a meeting place. For others, it's part of the morning routine. One customer said that taking it away would be, for some, like taking half their lives away.

That's why the fire that struck Tuesday night attracted dozens of people -- including employees who weren't on duty and regular customers -- to the restaurant at 911 W Main St.

Restaurant workers said they began to smell smoke, or burning wood, as early as 5 p.m., but they couldn't figure out what it was. They looked everywhere, in closets and garbage cans, but couldn't find the source of the smell and didn't see flames.

"It got to where you could smell it and I started to think something was wrong," said Robert Rieck, who was working in the dish room.

Customers started to complain. Some employees went outside and saw smoke coming from the roof. They called 911 at 8:23 p.m., Inverness police said.

Three Inverness police officers and seven fire trucks from the Floral City, Highlands and Inverness departments responded. Customers and employees had already evacuated, according to the county's fire service director, Mike Schlaudraff.

There were no injuries.

The cause of the fire was not considered suspicious. The most probable cause was electrical, according to Mike Loston, an investigator for the state fire marshal's office, which is investigating the blaze.

Most of the damage was to a wall between the dining room and kitchen. The fire had spread upward to the attic, investigators said. The amount of damage was still being determined.

Officials had trouble finding the fire, Schlaudraff said.

Restaurant owner Joe Kozevski said this was the first fire he had experienced in his more than 30 years of owning restaurants. When something like this happens, he said, "there's not much you can do."

Though drivers passing by might not immediately know that a fire struck Joe's, the damage was bad enough to keep the restaurant closed Wednesday and today. A truck was going to take away the 20 frozen turkeys Kozevski had planned to prepare for dinner tonight.

A lot of people spend Thanksgiving at the restaurant, he said, but this year, "I guess they'll have to go somewhere else."

It might take a while before the restaurant reopens, Kozevski said Tuesday night. But will it reopen for sure?

"Oh, hell yeah," he said.

-- Suzannah Gonzales can be reached at sgonzales@sptimes.com or 860-7300.