Up in Flames

Local restaurant icon Café Terra Cotta copes with fire damage and finding temporary jobs for employees

Anniversaries are usually cause for celebration, but on July 5--the exact date of Café Terra Cotta's 18th anniversary--a two-alarm blaze erupted in the middle of the night, causing at least $250,000 of fire, water and smoke damage to the restaurant.

While vacationing in San Diego, Café Terra Cotta President Michael Luria awoke at 7 a.m. to find his phone blinking. He only had time to listen to one of 14 messages that had been left for him before hurriedly boarding a flight back to Tucson. By the time he returned around 10 a.m., the fire was out, and the mopping had begun.

The Rural/Metro fire department has ruled out arson, though the cause of the electrical fire has not been determined. Luria said his insurance company will probably continue with a more thorough investigation.

"Everything has to be removed," said Luria, "from the salt-and-pepper shakers to chairs, art work, kitchen appliances. And everything will have to be professionally cleaned and evaluated for usability."

Located at 3500 E. Sunrise Drive, and now surrounded by a temporary chain-link fence, Café Terra Cotta is a family-run business. Michael, son of Don Luria, started as a busboy in 1986 and now manages the restaurant along with his wife, Maya. Don Luria and Donna Nordin, wife, chef and cookbook author are well-known throughout Tucson for their fund-raising efforts and expansive community involvement. The elder Luria was voted by the Weekly's readers as the best arts patron in the Best of Tucson ® 2002.

Don Luria is also one of the founders of Tucson Originals, an alliance of independent restaurants that began in 1998, designed to buy products and services in bulk and to market collectively in order to effectively compete with the resources and buying clout of chain restaurants.

From Tucson Originals sprouted CIRA, the Council of Independent Restaurants of America, now with 15 chapters and growing. In the July 2004 issue of Entrepreneur magazine, Don Luria, president of CIRA, was quoted as saying "the independent restaurant share of the dining out pie is getting smaller and smaller. The first thing to do is realize that other independent restaurant owners are not enemies--they're your friends."

And at a time like this, you can't have too many friends.

"Unfortunately, local restaurants are slower in summer," said Pat Connors, owner of Pastiche Modern Eatery and current president of Tucson Originals. "However, we are asking our members or any restaurants to reach out and temporarily hire these 80 Café Terra Cotta employees." So far, Pastiche has hired a few, and the newly expanded Feast made offers for two part-time positions.

"CIRA members have already been alerted about managers and chefs who may be willing to temporarily relocate, which could be a win-win proposition for both independent restaurateurs nationwide and Café Terra Cotta's fast-track personnel," said Connors.

At this time, Michael Luria is unable to estimate how long the innovative Southwest restaurant will be closed. Last week, Luria watched as fire investigators poked around the building he helped design, and a company packed up the art work, furniture and menus that need to be cleaned, in an effort to remove the smell of smoke that permeates the place.

Thankfully, the restaurant is fully insured. However, Luria expresses concerns about the financial fate of his employees, and the daunting task of starting over.

"Although about 10 percent of the restaurant has been damaged," he says, "there are structural issues to contend with. We're going to need a structural engineer, permits, construction schedules, inspection approvals. It will be a long, drawn out process. Our goal is to reopen as soon possible. The upcoming fall and winter seasons are very important to our business."

He adds that he is infinitely grateful no one was injured and has been very moved by the outpouring of support.