When the Smoke Clears

by Katie Lee

Renovating a fire-damaged restaurant.

By Ron Wilhite

The fire department just rolled up their hoses, stowed their axes and pulled the ladder trucks away from the front of your restaurant….now what?

Probably one of the most challenging chapters in the life of a facility manager is in the aftermath of a fire at one of your restaurants. Some companies have an entire construction team that may be suited to responding to such a disaster, but in today’s culture of scaled-back and overall lean operations, handing off a fire renovations project to others within your company may not be an option.

The task of returning a fire-damaged restaurant to an operational state can be a challenge with its own unique set of variables, assuming damage is beyond basic cleanup and maintenance. Skipping past the operations side of your own post-disaster checklist (determining disposition of food stores, liquor and other perishables, redirecting labor and much more); there can be many avoidable pitfalls for an unprepared facility manager. A step-by-step plan, or even an outline of such, would fill far more pages than this article, or even this magazine, is designed to hold. So, we’ll stick to an overview of some of the potential blind spots the practical and prudent facility manager should consider.

Make Safe

While you can usually count on the fire department, or perhaps the building inspector, to be present and authorize entry into the restaurant after the fire is extinguished, proceed with caution. There can be many latent opportunities for structural failure and personal injury as a result of the fire. Be sure to also have the area well secured against the potential for entry by unauthorized personnel.

Partner with Professionals

Using a properly qualified restaurant renovations general contractor who is familiar with restaurants and restaurant systems is paramount (probably not the same maintenance guy that repins your car stops or replaces the stained FOH ceiling tiles from time to time or, the ground-up GC that does new builds in high-volume and cookie-cutter fashion). An experienced restaurant renovations general contractor will orchestrate the much needed additional talent of engineering, disaster response cleanup crews, electricians, mechanical contractors, interior finishers, etc. Further, because working in a post-fire remediation is not generally a project you can “get a few bids on,” you need someone whom you trust implicitly. Your restaurant renovations general contractor will be working very closely with not only the building inspector to get your restaurant back online, but also with the fire, health and other trade inspectors who will want to have their individual needs met before giving their approval to return to business.

Burned Down RestaurantWhile the most qualified facility managers may acquire the skills to appease a slightly perturbed health inspector, dealing with the array of demanding building inspectors throughout the renovation of a restaurant fire can be a bit more daunting. This opportunity for the various inspectors to enforce code compliance doesn’t need to be a series of “gotchas” if your restaurant renovations general contractor is skilled in communicating and understanding the multitude of expectations that will likely come from the sequence of inspectors that will come visit the project. Proactive communication is imperative here.

Expect the Unexpected

Systems within a restaurant which are not overly taxed when in service during normal times can give far different results when that environment changes. For example, a grease interceptor receiving a routine infusion of waste can operate with acceptable results for long periods of time. Take away the daily infusion of hot flow into this same container as the restaurant operations are disrupted during fire renovations, and this same interceptor will very likely solidify and restrict flow. This can be a disaster of its own when all of the inspectors are testing for system operations and the drains begin to back up. In a similar fashion, the fire strobes, emergency exit lights/signs and most audible exit alarm devices will more than likely need new batteries, or a complete replacement if the restaurant is offline for an extended period. Some of these things just don’t come back to life so easily.

Set Reasonable Timeline Expectations with Operations

This can be one of the biggest blind spots where a facility manager might stumble. Of course, both you and your operations client want the restaurant back online in the shortest amount of time, that is obvious. What may not be as obvious in the early stages of the renovations could be the uncontrollable components of the project that can cause a schedule to slip. A sampling of these include:

• Weather: Ever try to replace a roof, re-side a building or paint an exterior in the winter? This is almost never a seasonal problem in Miami or Phoenix, but can be a real problem in the northern parts of the U.S.

• Materials Fabrication: What was the lead time when you last ordered a booth, chair or total FF&E package? Although these items are some of the last components to go back into a renovated restaurant, their fabrication times can have significant play on an otherwise tight schedule.

• All the other stuff too: From window treatments, wall-covering, décor, flooring and more, these items need to be specified  by your design team and ordered right away. If this tragic event is being used as a spring-board to upgrade to new brand standards, watch closely that your needed components and their timing are not adversely affected by the already pressing demands of your remodel department.

Work closely with your restaurant renovations general contractor to set a schedule, along with noted contingencies, that can be shared with all appropriate stakeholders and tracked weekly for updates. It is usually the all-but-forgotten challenges in the beginning of a project that can cause a renovation schedule to slip. Ongoing communication is critical.


Although it may have seemed like this day would never arrive, your restaurant renovations general contractor has delivered the restaurant to the finish line. Your operations customer is, as expected, beyond eager to get the restaurant cooking and delivering positive guest experiences. However, just as a watch has hundreds of little pieces that allow the hands to move with accuracy, so too does the operation of a restaurant. Stay close to the operations team and anticipate that there will be a number of little things that can, and probably will, still require your attention. 

As the smoke clears, your job begins. Partnering with the right restaurant renovations general contractor is the first step in ensuring a favorable outcome in an unfavorable situation.


— Ron Wilhite, a 32-year career licensed renovations contractor, is the CEO of RFS, a restaurants renovation contractor throughout the U.S. Email the author at [email protected].

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