Appetizers

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Small kitchen fire at Ella cancels dinner service Saturday; top restaurant racing to reopen

01/26/2014 11:23 AM

01/26/2014 12:17 PM

A small kitchen fire at Ella Dining Room & Bar that started behind a high-heat oven Saturday afternoon triggered the fire suppression system and forced the cancellation of dinner service.

The blaze was quickly extinguished, but not before the Ansul System, with nozzles installed over the cooking surfaces, went into action, spraying a green viscous retardant throughout the large kitchen.

Read: Elegant, elevated Ella makes case for region’s best restaurant

No one was injured and there was no structural damage to the multimillion-dollar restaurant, which is widely admired for its interior design.

According to Joseph Vaccaro, the restaurant’s general manager, the fire started around 1:30 p.m., not long after kitchen staff arrived and turned on burners to warm them up for a night of cooking. There were no customers on the premises.

The oven, known as a salamander, Vaccaro explained, is a wall-mounted unit used mostly to warm dinner plates, but it is also employed to quickly sear food under high heat.

“All the safety mechanisms we have in place did their job,” Vaccaro said Sunday morning. “But when the fire suppression system goes off, that’s probably the worst thing any restaurant operator wants to get a call about.”

The kitchen crew scrambled to clean up the mess, slipping and sliding on the fire retardant. Vaccaro said he was hoping to open Ella at some point Saturday, but it soon became apparent that there were too many issues to overcome, including re-inspections by the county’s Department of Environmental Management (better known as the Health Department) and the Sacramento Fire Department.

Canceling Saturday night dinner at one of the region’s leading dining destinations is a major ordeal. Staffers started by making dozens of phone calls. Nearby restaurants, including Grange, Waterboy, Mulvaney’s and Capital Dime, offered to help absorb canceled reservations.

Vaccaro said 95 percent of the people with reservations were “very kind and understanding” when they learned the news, but 5 percent “were very upset.”

Even absent structural damage, it’s a mighty blow to the restaurant and staff.

Lost revenue at that one dinner service is projected to be $30,000 to $40,000, according to Vaccaro, accounting for about 25 percent of the restaurant’s weekly earnings. More than 115 people were expected in the door by 7 p.m., not including patrons in the large bar area.

Further, the service staff went home without a busy night’s worth of tips – that could be $200 or more each. The restaurant kept the servers on the clock Saturday to do a deep cleaning of the dining room.

“The first thing I did was apologize to the staff that you’re going home without anything in your pockets tonight,” Vaccaro said. “I was a server for years. I know how it hurts.”

Vaccaro opted not to reopen for lunch Monday, but the restaurant will be ready for a private event Monday night. Regular service is expected to resume Tuesday.

What makes Ella such a great restaurant? Read my recent review by clicking here.

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