The Kirby & Holloway restaurant, a favorite dining spot in Dover since 1948, was destroyed by an early morning fire Feb. 2.
A driver passing by the restaurant spotted the fire and called the 911 emergency center at 1:06 a.m., said city of Dover spokeswoman Kay Dietz Sass.
“The responders were there in minutes,” Sass said.
City Fire Marshal Dave Truax had completed his investigation of the blaze by 8:45 a.m., determining it originated in kitchen wiring. The cause is considered accidental, Truax said.
The Dover, Little Creek and Cheswold fire companies responded to the fire, Sass said.
Owners Jim and Cathy Gray were alerted to the blaze by their alarm company and were on the scene almost immediately. The couple have owned the business, which employs 50 full- and part-time workers, for the past 35 years.
“It's like we just got punched,” Gray said. “My gut reaction is we took a real hit.”
The restaurant has undergone a number of changes during its 65 years, the most recent approximately six months ago with the installation of a new counter area. New coffee urns and a computer system also were recent improvements, Gray said.
Dover residents have been coming to the restaurant for decades, and many remember its earliest days when people used to drive up and eat inside their cars.
“It was like Arnold's on 'Happy Days,'” said Allan Angel, who first ate at the restaurant when his family moved to Dover in 1965. “Waitresses would come out on roller skates to take orders.”
The concrete slab that once anchored the overhead canopy still is visible in the rear of the restaurant.
Dover's Charlie Boyer was a regular, eating at the restaurant almost daily and twice on Sundays.
“All I can tell you is I'm going to miss this place,” he said sadly. “I'm really going to miss this place.”
Boyer was standing in the parking lot Sunday morning with a group of employees as they looked over the damage. The front of the building appeared to have sustained the worst fire and water damage. Windows were smashed, and the roof had collapsed. The scene was cordoned off with yellow warning tape; burned, yet sodden pieces of wood littered the parking lot, along with water and sports drink bottles discarded by firefighters.
The building's landmark cupola survived, however, and firefighters saved the American flag and the U.S. Marine Corps flag that Gray has flown from it for years.
The latter flag was given to the restaurant by Gray's son, Brian, a Marine Corps major, and once flew over his work place in Afghanistan.
Nearby, Truax and a pair of investigators were finishing up their work, posting warning signs and putting away equipment.
Page 2 of 2 - The building is a total loss, Truax said, putting the estimate at approximately one million dollars, taking into account the equipment and lost revenue. The Gray's insurance adjustor will have to come up with a closer estimate, he added.
Employee Shelby Groff learned about the fire from her brother, a Dover police officer.
“It's really unbelievable,” Groff said, surveying the damage with fellow employees. “It just hasn't sunk in yet. I've spent more time here than I do at home. It's a very, very strange feeling.”
Joe Hickman, who started as a dishwasher 17 years ago and now is a manager, said he felt, “Heartbreak, dismay and disbelief.”
“I'm in shock right now,” said front manager Pam Knowles. “I just can't believe it.”
Rob Kellam of Dover has been a Kirby & Holloway patron form more than 38 years. As a teenager, he remembers coming to the restaurant to eat ice cream on Friday nights.
“This place was like the Cheers of Dover, without the alcohol,” he said. “Everyone knew your name.”
Kellam is spearheading an effort to set up a relief fund for Kirby & Holloway employees to help tide them over until they either find new work or, as Gray intends, the restaurant is rebuilt.
“We had a lot of older people working here and we have a strong obligation to them,” he said. “My thought is that if they want to say, I'm going to stay. Whatever I have in life, I owe to these folks, and I am indebted to them.”
Gray said he believes in the restaurant, its workers and the thousands of people who have dined there over the years.
“You get into these things to serve people,” he said. You get pleasure out of meeting challenges every day and making people happy.”