Chef Steve Hanson was too distraught to recall what specials he had planned for yesterday.
"It's like losing your home," he said after an early-morning fire severely damaged the Lobster House, the Cape May Harbor landmark where he has served up countless crab imperials and fishermen's wharf platters for 17 years.
Office manager Clara Burkhardt, a 25-year employee, fretted about making payroll - due today - for the nearly 400 workers at the restaurant and a related complex that includes a raw bar, retail and wholesale fish markets, a scallop-boat fleet, and other operations.
Owner Keith Laudeman's feelings were mixed: A fire in the 1960s, when he was about 6 and his father, Wallace, ran the business, was much worse, he recalled.
Yesterday's fire was traced to a defective exhaust fan in an upstairs storage area for linen and utensils, said Lt. Christopher Winter, the Lower Township Police Department's fire investigator.
An adjacent banquet hall, which seated 100, and the restaurant downstairs, with seating for 500, were damaged mainly by smoke and water from sprinklers.
The fire was reported just after 3 a.m. and put out by about 5:30 a.m., Winter said. About 50 firefighters from four companies fought the blaze, he said.
No one was injured.
The restaurant, set up in 1954, stemmed from a wholesale fish business started in 1922 by Laudeman's grandfather Jess.
Laudeman, 50, said it was too early to put a price tag on the damage, but added that the facility was "totally insured."
He said that he expected it would be many weeks before the restaurant reopened, but that the fish market and raw bar would be open today.
By late afternoon, instead of the usual diners lining up outside, a crowd of curiosity seekers had gathered at the Lobster House, some taking pictures of the calamity.
Many were frequent customers.
"It's the kind of place that anyone from around here brings guests to whenever people are visiting," Jane Gummel of Wildwood Crest said.
Gummel, who said she had been going to the restaurant for 40 years, arrived when she heard of the fire. She brought a friend and a camera.
Distributed by the Associated Press