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Back in Business 

The management of fire-ravaged Café Terra Cotta works to have the restaurant open for customers before Christmas

As Café Terra Cotta president Michael Luria stands in the middle of his gutted restaurant, the noise of construction crews surrounds him: hammers banging, paint brushers swishing. Luria looks a little tired, but there's enthusiasm in his voice.

He has good reason to be enthused: After weeks of red tape and delays, Café Terra Cotta is just starting to look like itself again--and within six weeks or so, it should be back and better than ever.

"It's progressing really well," he says of the reconstruction. "I really couldn't be happier with the progress the contractor has made in a relatively short period of time."

Flash back to early July, when the word "happy" was nowhere to be heard. In the early morning of July 5--the 18th anniversary of Café Terra Cotta--a fire broke out at the restaurant, located at 3500 E. Sunrise Drive. While firefighters responded quickly, the blaze burned fast: About 20 percent of the building had to be completely reconstructed--the kitchen and the dining area above took the worst damage--while the rest of the building suffered serious smoke and water damage. According to Luria, investigators still have no idea what caused the fire; electrical issues are suspected, and arson has been ruled out, but the exact cause may never be known.

Luria was on vacation in San Diego with his wife, Maya, and kids at the time of the fire. There were 14 messages on his cell phone when he woke up about 7 a.m.; he caught the first plane back to town, where he found a mess, both in terms of the restaurant and the process of rebuilding.

"People have talked about fires like this, as if there's no difference from having a death in the family," Luria says. "You go in the stages--disbelief, anger. I don't know if there are exact parallels, but there are similarities. There's a lot of anguish. It's very frustrating; you're powerless to drive the process. The ball is in the insurance company's court."

Café Terra Cotta was fully insured, including business interruption insurance, meaning the ongoing expenses during reconstruction--managers' salaries, the mortgage, etc. --were covered, as well as the physical damage. "Without it, we'd probably never re-open," Luria says.

But things didn't go smoothly; the insurance adjuster first assigned to Terra Cotta had to be removed after about six weeks' worth of work. The new adjuster had to start from scratch. Had things gone smoothly, Café Terra Cotta could be now celebrating its re-opening, or would be very close to it.

Between now and the re-opening, Luria--clearly relieved--and the Café Terra Cotta management team have a lot of work to do. First comes the re-hiring process. After the fire, the staff (aside from management) was left jobless, and a number of the employees found other work and won't be returning. Others have moved or left the restaurant business. While a series of events--a bowling night, a bagel breakfast, etc. --have been held for the former employees, Luria believes he'll only get one-third to half of the employees back; the rest will be brand new. All former employees and prospective employees are encouraged to apply at the restaurant's temporary offices across the street from Café Terra Cotta, at 3450 E. Sunrise Drive, Suite 160, from 9-11 a.m. and 3-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

By mid-November, Luria hopes, equipment will be ready to get moved in, and vendors--like the soda vendor, Pepsi, and the linen company--will be able to get things set up. By the end of the month, the staff will start process of re-stocking all of the restaurant's salvaged inventory--dishes, furniture, etc. Of course, all the dishes will need to be re-washed, and so on; that process alone could take a week.

"There are two 18-wheelers' worth (of stuff)," Luria notes.

Luria hopes to start staff training in early December, with a few training dinners before Café Terra Cotta is re-opened to the public--hopefully, just before Christmas.

"The anxiety is building," Luria says. "But it's a nice anxiety, if anxiety can be favorable."

Café Terra Cotta will not be exactly the same as it was before its sudden closing, Luria says. There are two new private dining rooms downstairs along with a more comfortable, lounge-style bar area. New furniture and a different color scheme will greet diners, and the menu will be about 50 percent new (although the signature dishes remain the same). Luria says that although executive chef Tom Mead left for Zona 78, the restaurant's other two chef's remain: Mark Ostrom, the new executive chef, and Dave Bishow. And as always, the chefs will work with Donna Nordin--aka Michael's mom, who founded the restaurant with her husband, Don Luria, in 1968, when Michael started there as a busboy.

Michael Luria worked his way up from there, and the restaurant has a special place in his heart; he and his wife had dessert there on their first date, and that's where he proposed.

"I am just relieved and delighted (for the restaurant) to be on the road to recovery," he says. "I am excited about the re-opening, and instead of dwelling on the past, I'm looking forward to the future.

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