Updated 5:30 p.m. with info about The Little Lion’s employee benefit party on March 4.
When Capofitto co-owner Stephanie Reitano realized the fire in Old City was on the same block as her restaurant, her first thought was of the dozens of employees at her Neapolitan pizzeria, and how they would be put out of work.
But soon, complications had Reitano worrying about whether the catastrophe would force the collapse of the entire Capogiro restaurant group — and put all of its 120 staffers in the same position.
“I’m afraid this will drag Capogiro down with it,” Reitano told Billy Penn on Wednesday, about the gelato business she’s run with her husband John for the past decade and a half. “That’s my biggest fear.”
The Little Lion is another restaurant on that block, and owner Chris Younge is also worried about his staff of 80 or so.
After reaching out via social media, he has a list of around two dozen other restaurants willing to provide temporary employment for his displaced workers, he said. In addition, he believes his fire insurance will eventually cover a month or so of lost wages — but that probably won’t be enough.
“I finally accepted the fact that it’s not gonna be two weeks [until we can open again],” Younge told Billy Penn Thursday. “It’s gonna be more like two months.”
Some of the slowness is because the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating the cause of the fire — there are rumors it may have been arson.
For Capofitto, even being closed for two weeks would be devastating, Reitano said.
Originally, Reitano thought she’d be able to reopen within a few days. She’d been forced to throw away many tens of thousands of dollars of food and liquor, rendered unservable by smoke or by lack of refrigeration after the city shut off power to the block. However, other than being saturated with a smoky scent and some residue, Capofitto’s interior wasn’t badly damaged.
So when the Department of Licenses and Inspections cleared 233 Chestnut for reoccupancy on Thursday morning, Reitano texted her staff and enlisted them to come in for a group cleaning session.
But when she showed up to meet them and a crew of professional smoke restoration specialists at Capofitto on Thursday morning, she was denied entry. As she tried to navigate the mixed messages she’d received, she heard an estimate from an InTech construction worker that made her heart sink.
“It’ll likely be two weeks before you can reopen,” the construction worker told Reitano.
In the dead of winter, when gelato sales at Capogiro are at their lowest, two weeks without cash flow from Capofitto would make a harsh dent in her company’s ability to keep operating, Reitano said.
“If it was the summer I wouldn’t be so concerned,” she explained.
Even worse, because L&I officially cleared her building for occupancy, Reitano’s insurance agency was looking to deny her claim of of extended closure: “They need proof of ‘Civil Authority’ that we’re being forced to stay closed.”
The Little Lion buiding has not been cleared by L&I, but dealing with the insurance for a catastrophe like this is still very complicated, said Younge. “It’s not just one policy,” he said. “There’s business owner insurance, condo insurance, building owner insurance… I don’t know how it’s going to shake out.”
Younge believes the damage in The Little Lion could have been repaired relatively quickly, if it was safe for workers to enter, “but each day it sits, it gets worse because of mold.”
Plus, there’s the added wrinkle of what might happen to the restaurant’s online ratings, which are often key to driving business. Younge shared a screenshot of a review posted by someone who visited on the day of the fire — and dinged the restaurant with one star.
Younge is now hoping to reopen at some point in April. In the meantime, he’s organizing an Old City Fire Relief Benefit for his employees on Sunday, March 4. More details on the event, which will also benefit Red Paw Relief animal rescue, will be released soon.
As for Capofitto, over the past 12 hours, Reitano has made some progress.
She’s now in talks with various city agencies to get her insurance the proper documentation it needs. She has also convinced L&I to move the caution tape currently keeping pedestrians off the sidewalk to the other side of her restaurant, so customers can access the front door.
Said Reitano hopefully on Friday afternoon: “I should be open by Monday or Tuesday.”