Forsyth business owners grateful for limited damage from downtown fire

lmorris@macon.comMarch 20, 2012 

FORSYTH -- Although the city of Forsyth lost a landmark business to fire Monday evening when the Grits Café on West Johnston Street was destroyed, it could have been much worse.

Black soot streaks the exterior of the historic Rose Theater next door and the smell of smoke inside it and Flowers by Helen two doors away resulted in a major cleaning effort Tuesday morning. But at least the fire was contained inside the restaurant’s walls.

The cause has not yet been determined, but the fire began in the kitchen and an investigation is under way, Forsyth Fire Chief David Herndon said.

When Marion McDougall, president/artistic director of The Backlot Players, which owns the Rose Theater, heard about the fire she said “my heart sank.” She was worried about it spreading to the theater.

“We have spent so much money restoring it,” McDougall said.

When she got to the fire about 6 p.m., it looked liked it was under control “and then the roof of the cafe caved in and the floors caught on fire.”

Tuesday morning the smell of smoke was so strong it burned the eyes and noses of everyone in the building, but McDougall was grateful everything was saved, including paintings, books, costumes, curtains and the seating which was installed just a few years ago.

After calling the insurance company, a cleaning crew of about 10 people from Service Master showed up Tuesday and guaranteed they would have the place cleaned of the smoke smell by Monday. A performance of “Rumpelstiltskin” planned for Saturday will go on as scheduled at 10 a.m., but it will be held in the gym at the Forsyth United Methodist Church at 68 West Johnston St., she said.

Angie Ellis, owner of Flowers By Helen, said when she learned about the fire, “it was the worse phone call ever.” Ellis has owned the florist more than 15 years.

Unfortunately, smoke filtered into the store and she had to put everything on sale. The words “Fire sale” and “Everything must go” were written on the front windows.

One of her employees was working under a tent Tuesday behind the store arranging flowers for a funeral. She was outside so the flowers wouldn’t smell of smoke.

Although Lawsons & Bromer Pharmacy is at the end of the block with the Rose Theater between it and the blazing restaurant, owner Hugh Cromer got nervous when flames shot way up above the roof of the cafe. Cromer was worried embers would come down on the asphalt roof of his business and start another fire.

It was then that he and other employees and family collected drugs from the pharmacy into trash bags and unhooked the computers and got them out of the building.

Cromer was able to get back into the building Tuesday morning, restocked the shelves, reconnected the computers and opened as scheduled at 7 a.m.

“The firefighters did an extraordinary job of containing it,” he said.

Tiffany Andrews, CEO of the Forsyth-Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, said she and several other people were having a Forsyth Festival meeting early Monday evening in a room that overlooks the back of Grits Café when a member saw smoke and fire coming from the restaurant and called 911.

“We got in touch with the owners (Wayne and Terri Wetendorf, who were at Tybee Island) and let everybody know what was going on,” Andrews said. The restaurant is closed Mondays.

The chamber contacted some local restaurants to help provide food and water for the firefighters. Soon, food and water and other items were coming from several different businesses and individuals, Andrews said.

“It’s amazing when you do something little ... everyone jumped in,” she said. “We had fire trucks and fire hoses going everywhere. ... We were blessed. We could have had a lot more damage. It was emotionally overwhelming. I gained a new respect for firefighters.”

The Wetendorfs couldn’t be reached for comment.

Andrews said she had talked with them, and they plan to reopen but she didn’t know if it would be in the same spot.

Four Grits Café workers were looking over the damage Tuesday.

“We’re in grief,” said Ben Banks, 24, who has worked there eight years. “We are really a family. It’s very sad. ... It’s sad to see our house get burned down.”

Banks said not only did the restaurant have a lot of regular customers from surrounding areas, it was a draw for tourists, too.

“We were a hot spot,” he said. “It feels like a link has been taken out of Forsyth.”

Fire Chief Herndon said the origin of the fire has been isolated to the kitchen at the rear of the building. The Forsyth fire inspector, who is with the police department, is conducting an investigation.

Herndon said he was happy no one was injured while fighting the fire.

At least 60 firefighters from numerous cities and counties were called in to help with the blaze. Departments from the cities of Forsyth, Barnesville, Jackson and Flovilla, and the counties of Monroe, Bibb, Lamar, Butts and Peach were on hand. A unit was also sent from the Georgia Fire Academy.

Herndon said he called in other fire departments to help early on, and it took a coordinated effort to keep the blaze from spreading.

“It took a team effort from all those who were involved,” he said. “I just believe in calling early instead of realizing you need help and then trying to call.”

Herndon said he was grateful for the help.

“They worked hard, and they were all after one common goal,” he said. “Fortunately everybody was safe. ... We deeply regret the loss of the Grits. It was a wonderful place to eat.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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