Restaurateurs spend a lot of time, money, and effort ensuring their businesses never have to deal with the devastation that a fire can cause. But with restaurants’ propensity for open flames, hot cooking equipment, flammable oils, and cleaning chemicals in the kitchen, it’s no surprise that data released by the National Fire Protection Association in 2012 reveals approximately 8,000 restaurants report a fire each year.
Some things operators can do to prevent fires seem like no-brainers—storing paper products, liquids, and food away from heat and cooking sources; disposing of soiled rags and trash properly; and cleaning ovens and equipment daily. The problem, experts say, is that operators can follow all the precautions and still have a fire wreck their business.
In 2013, Jim Joyce, owner of Rich’s Restaurant in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, watched a three-alarm fire—a category that signals serious damage—engulf his restaurant as a fire that began on the cooking line jumped into the exhaust hood and spread.
“It was utter devastation throughout, specifically on the cooking line,” says Ryan Beeck, project manager for Paul Davis Restoration & Remodeling, who led the restoration job. “The bulk of the equipment was damaged beyond any sort of repair. We took everything out, gutted it all, and started from scratch.”
Joyce used the opportunity to make significant improvements. The last remodel had occurred more than 10 years ago; the revamped restaurant now has a trendier feel with new interior finishes and an updated menu. Along with changing the restaurant name to Jim’s Grille when it re-opened in March 2014, Joyce also educated his staff about what to do in case a fire breaks out again.
“Most times, the work we do is related to grease fires that jump up and then there’s no means to stop it,” Beeck says. “The two biggest things you can do for prevention is to have annual maintenance checks on your equipment, especially anything involving gas, and stick to the cleaning program as prescribed for your exhaust hoods.”
The Importance of Fire-Suppression and Exhaust Systems
Outside of arson, the most common form of kitchen fires occur due to cooking equipment, which is why installing an automatic fire-suppression system in the kitchen is crucial. These systems automatically dispense chemicals to suppress the flames and also have a manual switch to shut down the fuel or electric supply to nearby cooking equipment.
Shane Ray, executive vice president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, says of all the efforts a restaurateur can exert, fire suppression is the only automatic life- and property-saving one.
Previous owners of a building also affect the chance of fire. John Rossmiller, regional fire director at Cintas Corporation, which provides fire-protection services to restaurants, gives an example of this. He says if a bar and grill moves into a space that previously served Chinese food, for instance, it might have an increased risk of fire because Chinese restaurants don’t use the same cooking equipment or oils that bar and grills do—making it crucial the new owners update their fire-suppression systems.
A sound fire-suppression system is not the only requirement for restaurants to guard against flames. Restaurants with up-to-date fire-suppression systems must still ensure regular cleanings of exhaust systems, Rossmiller says.
Phil Ackland, who has worked in commercial kitchen safety education for more than 25 years, serves as a commercial kitchen fire investigator and prevention specialist. He says restaurant owners make too many decisions based on the price of a bid from exhaust cleaners, and that can lead to devastation.
“There are a number of exhaust systems that cannot be cleaned properly without additional access [such as openings in the duct work],” he explains. Restaurants should shoulder any additional expense and deal with a reputable company to ensure exhaust systems are up to par, he adds.
Beyond regular checks on fire-suppression and exhaust systems, there are plenty of things a restaurant can do to protect itself from a fire. Having a Class K fire extinguisher at the ready is vital in case of a kitchen fire involving grease, fats, and oils that burn at high temperatures. For other accidents, such as paper, wood, plastic, and electrical fires, portable ABC extinguishers should be in an easy-to-reach location.
If a fire does break out during regular business hours, the most important thing for staff to do is remain calm and lead everyone out of the building. All staff should be trained in emergency preparedness and at least one worker per shift should understand how to shut off gas and electrical power.
Mike Amidzich offers one more tip to operators and employees. The owner of the 44-year-old Pizza Man in Milwaukee suffered $3 million in damages after a 2010 fire started by an arsonist at a nearby business destroyed his own eatery. He is in the process of re-opening Pizza Man at a different location with a more extensive sprinkler system in toe.
“One thing I would recommend is not to keep personal items in the restaurant. Keep them off premise—the pictures, awards, and other meaningful items,” Amidzich says. “You just never know.”