What a 2-Alarm Fire Does to a Restaurant

Julia Bainbridge
Food Editor

Manresa engulfed in smoke and flames. Photo credit: Janine De la Vega, KTVU

One of the most respected restaurants in the country, Manresa in Los Gatos, California, was hit by a fire on Monday morning. The cause is unknown. While the structure is intact, smoke ravaged the roof and the kitchen, where much repair work will have to be done. Chef and owner David Kinch released an official statement yesterday, saying “There has been speculation about the cost of damages and timing for reopening but we cannot confirm those reports. Rest assured, we will be reopening Manresa restaurant.”

A fire like this can be devastating to a restaurant. Not only does it have the damage to fix, but it also has employees and, in the case of many (especially in California these days), farmers who depend on their business. Not to mention “momentum, which is important to the restaurant business,” says Jennifer Sherman, General Manager of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, which last year suffered from the second of two major fires in its lifetime. “You lose your rhythm.”

While Chez Panisse had a certain amount of money in the bank, says Sherman, “that lasts only so long. Outstanding invoices keep coming in. We operate on short net, but a lot of businesses operate on a 30- or 60- or 90-day billing cycle.” Just because a restaurant is closed doesn’t mean it can stop paying bills.

Chez Panisse’s legendary owner Alice Waters herself says her saving grace was business-interruption insurance, which her father, an insurance salesman, had bought behind her back. “It’s so expensive,” she told us. “I never would have done it. I never wanted insurance on anything or anybody; I just didn’t believe in it back in the ‘70s. I thought, ‘If something happens, it happens; we’ll do something else’! But he bought it and I am forever grateful.”

That insurance not only paid employee salaries while Chez Panisse was down for four months, but also helped rebuild the restaurant, including the costly handmade redwood porch. “We did both a facelift and abdominal surgery,” says Sherman. “Now there’s a 20-foot steel frame inside all that beautiful redwood, we have a new, up-to-current-code foundation—it’s a pretty elaborate re-do.”

As for Bob Cannard, an organic farmer who sells 80 percent of his goods to Chez Panisse, Waters and Sherman continued to pay him his normal fee and used his produce to make farm boxes for Chez Panisse staffers. “We charged them five bucks a box to help offset the cost,” says Sherman. “It kept the flow going for Bob and it provided great boxes of produce for us twice a week. We found a way to keep the whole ball rolling.”

Manresa before the fire. Photo credit: Manresa

While San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer is friendly with Kinch, he says he hasn’t talked to the Manresa owner since the fire. Bauer, who has been writing about food in the Bay Area for more than 25 years, has seen the devastation of fires at Maverick, Fior d’Italia, Original Joe’s, and Chez Panisse, of course, and agrees that interruption insurance is key.

“It protects a business owner,” he told us. When Fleur de Lys was hit, “it was a boon for them, because the insurance company gauges what to give you by your income from the year before. It had been a great year for Fleur de Lys and then they were closed when the economy was tanking.” In a way, it was a blessing in disguise—the restaurant made more than it might have in during a tough time for many American businesses.

Bauer sees a silver lining for Manresa, too—not only because it’s one of the nine places he’s given four stars, but also because it could give Kinch a chance to reinvent himself. He’s done that once—of Kinch’s 2011 renovation, Bauer wrote, “In his more than nine years in business, he’s continued to up his game, creating a restaurant that fulfills his vision, regardless of cost”—and he can do it again.

“The break this will provide could help him further his vision,” Bauer told us. “All of a sudden, to be able to step back from what you’ve been doing and take time to look at other things—he could become re-enthused and reinvested.”

But, of course, it’s a very emotional time, and Waters says she empathizes. “The first time, I was really devastated,” she says, but to help raise money—and her spirits—friends of the restaurant threw a benefit.

“I would be happy to be involved in any such activity for Manresa,” she says. “Chez Panisse is in if that happens.”