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Omaha Magazine

From The Ashes: How Two Omaha Restaurants Faced the Fire

Jun 25, 2020 10:20AM ● By Sean McCarthy
Dan Matuella, Sons of Italy building

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Over the past five years, fires have been especially brutal to the Omaha restaurant community. It’s an inevitable risk, given that stoves and grills are in regular contact with flammable liquids, dripping fats, and cooking oils that can turn a flicker to a full-on blaze in a split second.  

Most fires are unceremoniously contained: remove a flaming pan from the heating source, suffocate the mini blaze by putting a lid over it. In some cases, a fire extinguisher is called in to solve the problem. But for several high-profile restaurants in Omaha, these fires showcased the worst possible scenarios, sometimes in spectacular, explosive fashion. 

The most famous of these was the 2016 M’s Pub fire in the Old Market. On a frigid January day, a contractor struck a gas line. The resulting gas leak was ignited and caused an explosion inside the fabled Omaha institution. Firefighters battled the blaze well into the night and for the next few days. The gutted historical building looked like the crystal Fortress of Solitude setting in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. 

Other Omaha institutions suffered similar, if less dramatic, fates. In 2017, the Sons of Italy Hall, near 10th and Briggs streets, had a two-alarm fire that burned its structure down to the studs. On Christmas Eve 2018, while vacationing in Vail, Colorado, the co-owner and current general manager of The Drover got a text, telling them their restaurant was on fire. The Sons of Italy and The Drover were able to reopen after the fires, but had to close again due to the coronavirus pandemic. (The Drover has reopened for dine-in, following the guidelines in place. The Sons of Italy plans to reopen for their Thursday lunch and Friday dinners in late July.)

One restaurant, Rivera’s Mexican Food, was damaged from a late summer fire in 2018 that affected other businesses in the strip mall near 120th and Blondo streets. Owners Tracey and Jesus Rivera kept their restaurant afloat by doing pop-ups and setting up temporary shop at the Sandbar Grille at 3809 N. 90th St. 

Other restaurants were not so lucky. The beloved southern-themed restaurant Mouth of the South suffered a fire in 2017 that caused them to relocate to 70th  Street and Ames Avenue. After a brief run at their new location, the restaurant closed its doors in late 2019. However, in their Facebook feed, Mouth of the South declared their intentions to reopen. And this past January, a fire damaged the popular Chinese restaurant Three Happiness Express, causing them to close. In a Facebook post to their followers in April, Three Happiness estimated their opening date to happen in either June or July. 

Before Christmas Eve in 2018, The Drover hadn’t experienced a fire in its 40 years of operation. Owners and sisters Wendy Anderson and Amy Leise took over the restaurant after their father, Robert Anderson, one of the founders of The Drover, died of a heart attack in 2014. Anderson and Leise remembered growing up within The Drover’s walls. Amy remembered playing restaurant with her sister when they were young. Wendy remembered them both being put to work by her father. 

“I remember spending a lot of weekends there cleaning during the days and also having free range of the fountain sodas. I would mix all of the flavors,” she said. 

Leise and Anderson both worked at The Drover in high school, either as a hostess or waitress. The two worked with longtime co-managers Gregory “Buddy” Goodman and Mike “Spike” Sabin. Goodman and Sabin were the faces of The Drover through its 40-year history. Goodman died in 2019. Sabin has since retired. Daryl Leise, Amy’s husband, took over as general manager in 2019. 

Amy and Daryl got a text around 9 a.m. stating The Drover was on fire. A friend who was working in the nearby Travel and Transport building sent a live feed via FaceTime to Anderson, showing the flames that were escaping through the roof. Anderson was in Omaha at the time and sped toward the restaurant. 

“When I pulled in, there were fire trucks there. John Chapman was there with WOWT,” Anderson said. 

“Buddy and Spike were down there too. We were all just right there at the same time.” 

Amy Leise remembers feeling like her heart sank. She cut her family ski vacation short and drove back to Omaha. Leise and Anderson were relieved to hear that no one was injured, and because of the early time of the fire, only one employee was inside the building and was able to escape. 

“When I knew they (the employees) were good and nobody was hurt or injured, I knew we could get through this,” Anderson said. 

Fire investigators determined a motor malfunction in the hood above the grill caused the blaze. The roof, kitchen, and salad bar were damaged. And for the first weeks, both Anderson and Leise believed they would be back in business within a few months. The owners met with Sabin and Goodman as well as insurance agents and contractors. Once work began on tearing down the rubble, it became evident that extensive work would be needed to get The Drover’s doors open again. 

“It’s like an onion,” Leise said. “Every time we peeled back a layer, new fire-related issues presented themselves.” 

The first major problem Leise and Anderson encountered was they didn’t have the original blueprints to the 50-plus-year-old building. Because of this, they had to hire an architect and engineer to locate the plumbing and the electrical layout of the building. Much of the restaurant’s plumbing was four feet underground within the building. Trenches had to be dug to get to the pipes. 

“There was dirt piled up against the walls as high as my shoulders,” Leise said. 

Along with fixing the fire-related damages, Leise and Anderson had to do additional work to get the building up to code. One regulation required them to move a load-bearing wall that was behind the grill station. That required a construction crew to literally raise the roof of The Drover to accommodate the change. Modifications to the bathrooms to accommodate the Americans with Disabilities Act were also done. The total cost of the repairs was about $800,000, Leise said. 

During the nine months The Drover sat, its employees were paid their full wages, including tips, Leise said. Shortly after her father died, Leise did an audit of the restaurant’s insurance policy. She determined the need for business interruption insurance, which paid her employees. 

“We did not lose one single employee from an employment standpoint,” Leise said. 

While much work went into keeping the feel of the original restaurant, some upgrades were inevitable. New cooking equipment demanded an updated electrical setup. New registers were installed to replace the melted ones. To test out the new digs, the staff had a private dinner service for the contractors as well as the fire stations that responded to the blaze. 

On August 26, 2019, almost nine months after the fire, The Drover reopened for business. Its menu, including its famous whiskey-marinated steaks, remained virtually unchanged. To commemorate the reopening, a dedicated group of patrons who had been going to The Drover for more than 30 years held a small ceremony and chipped in for some additional landscaping outside the restaurant. Seeing that group, dubbed “Geezerville,” was one of the most rewarding moments during the busy weeks leading up to The Drover’s reopening, Leise said. 

“Their faces are part of The Drover,” she said. 

The hood motor malfunction that caused The Drover’s fire is a common hazard for restaurants that have grills. However, the 2017 fire that devastated The Sons of Italy at 1238 S. 10th St. in the Little Italy neighborhood could have been mentioned in the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. In a phone interview, Dan Matuella, president of the Nebraska chapter of the Sons of Italy, said the official cause of the fire was due to a “spontaneous combustion” of rags. 

Matuella laid out the likely scenario that led to its nearly three-year shuttering: the staff of mostly volunteers at the lodge wiped up cooking oil (most likely canola) with rags, which were later put in the wash. After the rags were dried, it was assumed they were put in a pile. The friction from the remaining dried oil on the rags ignited. Battalion Chief Scott Fitzpatrick, a department spokesman for Omaha Fire Department, said while this type of spontaneous combustion of rags was more common in settings like garages where more flammable liquids are present, the ignition of cooking oils on rags could still pose a risk of fire, as was the case with Sons of Italy. 

“The whole building pretty much burned down,” Matuella said. 

Matuella said he was supposed to volunteer that night. While not a textbook definition of a restaurant, the Sons of Italy dining hall serves lunches on Thursday and dinner on Friday. The money raised during those food services funds causes such as Alzheimer’s and autism research as well as scholarships. 

The initial cost to rebuild was $1.2 million. Unfortunately, the lodge was only insured for $700,000. So began a three-year process of fundraising to make up the difference. During that time, the cost of lumber rose, further increasing the repair costs. Matuella said Sons of Italy received a major donation from a member who chose to remain anonymous. During the three years of fundraising, there was various stoppages to construction as money ran out, and more had to be raised. Matuella remembered the frustration from himself as well as the members during that time. 

“The membership was fractured on it,” Matuella said. 

The Sons of Italy organization was able to secure a loan to cover the increased construction and lumber costs. Matuella said they are still about $165,000 short of fully paying off the balance of the loan. 

Sons of Italy finally reopened this past February. The renovated building included a larger dining area as well as a modernized kitchen. The former sous chef is now the head chef, responsible for the spaghetti sauce. Four volunteers help with the weekly preparation for the lunch and dinner services. 

Prep begins on Monday when the mix for the spaghetti sauce is made. Tuesday is for rolling meatballs. Wednesday is for making the sauce. Matuella said he was able get two dry runs in before their first service on Feb. 13, 2020. They needed the practice to face the crowds that had waited years for a spaghetti dinner at the lodge. 

Matuella estimated that 640 lunches were served for their first service, even with temperatures in the teens. The second and third weeks saw attendance jump to about 700 for lunches. On their fourth week, just before they had to close because of the coronavirus pandemic, they had close to 800 lunch customers and roughly 375 for dinner service. 

Even though Sons of Italy had to close its doors for lunch and dinner service during the pandemic, Matuella said it was heartwarming to see the public outpouring of support those first few weeks they were reopened. He said he hoped to continue to whittle down their debt for the rest of the year now that restaurants are cleared to reopen. 

“We just like to get those white shirts dirty with sauce,” Matuella said. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, the same insurance policy that covered The Drover’s employees during the fire also paid for their wages while the restaurant was closed. Leise said the coronavirus situation was different because of the unpredictability and fear associated with the virus. At the time of the interview, Anderson said she hoped the same resilience that kept them afloat during the fire would help them during the pandemic. 

“The comeback is always stronger than the setback. That’s our focus,” Anderson said. 

Visit droverrestaurant.com and sonsofitalyne.org for more information.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.