Bruno Serato ignored the call that came through to his cellphone one night after 4 a.m. The French-born Italian chef had worked until midnight and was too exhausted to pick up. The caller left a voicemail, which struck him as unusual. He sat up and played it. According to the brief message, there was a fire at Anaheim White House, the restaurant in Southern California he had run for nearly 30 years. “I thought it was a joke,” Serato says.
It was a busy weekend at the restaurant with a string of more busy weekends on the horizon, and Serato wasn’t inclined to drive 30 miles round-trip for a prank. But once it became clear that the call was serious, he drove to Anaheim at top speed.
From a mile away, Serato could see smoke and the lights of firetrucks. Road closures forced him to park his car far from the premises and sprint towards the scene. “Stupid things come to your mind,” he says. “I was thinking I could save it.”
The first person who saw him on approach was the fire chief, who happened to be a friend. “He gave me the biggest hug, the hug I needed at that moment,” Serato says. His restaurant had been reduced to ashes and he did not know who, if anyone, or what, to blame.
According to figures provided by the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments across America responded to an average of 8,240 structure fires at eating and drinking establishments each year between 2012 and 2016. These fires resulted in two civilian deaths each year on average, along with 115 injuries and $246 million in property damage.
So aside from the obvious — kitchens have stoves and ovens — why are restaurants so prone to catching fire? “Restaurant fires run the gamut in regards to causes,” says New York City Fire Department spokesman Jim Long. “You have refrigeration equipment, appliances that are electrically supported, overheated motors, and belts in machinery.”
In a business with so many risks and unknowns, fire is a liability many chefs and restaurateurs sometimes forget about — until it’s too late. Here’s how and why fires start in restaurants, and the measures that can be taken to prevent such disasters.
Cooking oil/Grease traps
Unsurprisingly, the most common causes of major fires in restaurants are related to cooking flames and flammable kitchen materials. According to a 2017 report by the National Fire Protection Association, food — including cooking oil and alcohol — parchment, foil, and other packaging materials were the items first ignited in 43 percent of restaurant fires.
Fires can spread when flames get into the kitchen’s ductwork and exhaust system, the vents and fans behind ovens and stoves that extract flammable vapors and smoke and are typically home to grease buildup.
Oven hoods, the stainless steel appliances directly above stoves that catch contaminated cooking air and feed it into the exhaust system, also pose a substantial fire risk if not adequately cleaned and maintained. Cooks and kitchen porters are usually responsible for cleaning these nightly, but sometimes the chore gets skipped. More in-depth cleaning, which is necessary on a regular basis for proper hood operation, is something restaurant owners might be tempted to skip given the expense, which can start at $500 per cleaning and increase in price for larger restaurants with complex networks of equipment.
“It can definitely be costly for a restaurant,” says Alex Garrote, a Cleveland, Ohio-based commercial kitchen sales executive with fire safety systems provider Johnson Controls and former fire department EMT. “It’s just one of those things. Hood cleaning has to happen professionally, twice a year.”
Another common source of fire is grease traps. Restaurants are required by law to use these underground metal containers to catch used oils and fats and keep them from clogging sewers. The cleaning of these traps is mandated by both the NFPA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration: High-volume kitchens must clean them quarterly, while quieter restaurants are required to do it twice a year, and they can catch fire if not properly maintained or if not emptied regularly.
Gas leaks and the resulting explosions tend to cause the most devastating restaurant fires. In March 2015, three buildings in Manhattan’s East Village were destroyed in an enormous gas explosion that killed two people and injured 20. The blaze destroyed a neighborhood deli and three restaurants: Sushi Park, East Noodle Ramen, and popular Belgian fries and poutine spot Pomme Frites. Thankfully, this kind of catastrophic incident is uncommon, even in cities as densely packed as New York where mixed-use buildings are the norm.
Gas leaks, which happen when older or neglected equipment can’t support the flow of gas, leave quantities of gas in the air which explode when ignited. The turning on of any electrical device, even a lightbulb, is enough to ignite the leaked gas; a lighter or a match has the same effect. Leaks, when caught in time, are chiefly detected by smell, but also by the presence of middling yellow or orange flames instead of sharp blue flames, or extinguished pilot lights in gas ovens or stoves. Both signals are caused by a compromised flow of gas which may be leaking out into another part of the stove or behind a wall.
The East Village gas explosion involved a botched attempt by several units to bypass gas service after issues with billing and provision, according to Long. “They did not register, properly install, or commit to code,” he says. “In other cases, appliances are moved about, then put back in place with insufficient care, and those damaged gas connections also pose significant fire hazards.”
One of the deadliest restaurant fires in American history, at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Paradise, Nevada, in 1980, was the result of an electrical ground fault. The fire, reported to have started at the back of a pastry display case, killed 85 people.
Electrical fires start when unsafe wiring, switches, sockets, or plugs project heat onto flammable or combustible materials. Outdated wiring can struggle with voltages used by modern appliances and break down, sparking and potentially leading to fires. Adding equipment to a kitchen that cannot handle the additional capacity can cause electronics to short circuit, leading to overheating, explosion, or fire.
Since 1944, NSF International, an independent national association, has issued certifications that ensure equipment in commercial kitchens is up to code, wired to handle the rigors of a busy work environment, and designed to protect against injury where possible. But most small equipment purchased in retail stores is not NSF certified and can be a hazard when used in professional kitchens.
In Bruno Serato’s case, it was not a grease fire or gas leak, but a faulty electrical outlet in the dining room that was to blame.
Alice Waters’ famed Berkeley, California restaurant Chez Panisse suffered a fire in 2013; early on, the cause was unclear but electrical equipment was found at the source. Waters ultimately decided to rewire the whole space.
Though costly and time-consuming, regular upkeep is key to preventing most restaurant fires. After the fire, Waters likened routine maintenance of Chez Panisse to “painting the Golden Gate Bridge. As soon as you get to one side, you start again.”
In case of accidents — and perhaps to negotiate a lower insurance premium — many restaurants also install fire suppression systems. Separate from a wall-mounted fire extinguisher, these systems are built into stoves or oven hoods. The system’s sensors can detect a fire and in response discharge a liquid chemical that reacts with grease to create a foam that quells flames.
According to Garrote, the technology “is getting better, and fire suppression systems have now been a big thing for about 20 years. They’re adding sensitivity all the time, and building automated systems,” which connect to gas, electricity, and fire alarm systems to prevent a fire from spreading and automatically alert the fire department.
But again, “Fire suppression systems need to have scheduled maintenance,” Garrote says. “A fire suppression system sits on a wall and doesn’t really do anything until you really need it to. People can ask: ‘How important is it that that guy comes?’”
Beyond requiring regular and thorough maintenance of ovens and gas mains, authorities make other, less obvious demands of restaurants in the name of fire prevention: Chairs and banquettes, as well as any curtains or draperies, must be fire-retardant. If a restaurant chooses to use actual candles, they must obtain a separate open flame permit.
Safety in the event of a fire is also covered by state or local fire codes. Exits and signage are subject to annual public inspections, in which fire departments confirm that submitted, up-to-code seating blueprints are actually reflected by a restaurant’s interior. The same regulations cover maximum occupancy, aisle widths, and ensure adequate space for wait stations.
“The infractions are often minor in nature,” says Long. “The position of tables or chairs might be in conflict to what the plans say — plans show four tables, but you have six — or an egress could be blocked. A lot of it comes down to housekeeping and front-of-house management.”
According to the NFPA, seven out of 10 fires in eating and drinking establishments are relatively small and do not spread beyond the object of origin. According to Garrote, there are about 21 reported bar and restaurant fires each day in the U.S., but many more go unreported. “If the system works and puts the fire out, nobody hears about it.”
In the weeks that followed the fire, Serato made numerous phone calls on behalf of his 50 staff members who found themselves with neither work nor workplace, helping to secure jobs for the majority within 30 days. That loyalty was eventually repaid: 80 percent of the original team returned to work at Anaheim White House when it reopened in May of this year. “When you open your door with your old crew, you’re at ease,” Serato says.
“For two or three months you’re thinking to yourself, Can I rebuild?” Serato says. “You try to put a number together, put a timeframe together. I hired a consultant and a general contractor. The original plan was to open in October, before the busy season. By April, we were still not open. Six additional months had passed, [and we lost] millions of dollars in sales. On top of that, you’re paying other people for six months. Some panic came to me,” says Serato. “I still was not really sure I could open the doors. But to never open again? It was not my state of mind.”
For Serato, neither contents nor loss of income was covered by his policy, and he was not expecting to be closed for 15 months. He says the damage to the building was covered by insurance “to a point,” although rebuilding ultimately went $500,000 over budget.
On May 4, 15 months after the fire, Anaheim White House reopened. The exterior was restored to approximate the 1909 original. The kitchen rebuild was the most time-consuming part, according to Serato: Though it didn’t actually catch fire, the smoke damage to the kitchen was so severe that it had to be entirely redone. As he works on a new fall menu with his kitchen staff, Serato confirms his decision to reopen, despite the costs, was a sort of redemption. “I didn’t want a fire to destroy 30 years of love,” he says.
Siobhán Brett is an Irish writer based in New York.
Editors: Erin DeJesus and Daniela Galarza