A recent rash of restaurant fires in Richmond all had a common denominator: grease buildup and poor cleaning, in some cases as a result of a third-party cleaning company, according to the Richmond fire investigators.
The four most recent fires — at Peking, the Tobacco Company, Rappahannock and Don’t Look Back restaurants — were caused by grease build-up in the duct work, according to the Richmond fire marshal’s office. They were the most significant of the eight cooking-related fires in Richmond eateries this year because the blazes spread to more than just the cooking area.
“In most of these locations, a cleaning company was called in, but it appears to us that they only cleaned part of the ductwork,” Richmond Fire Marshal David Creasy Sr. said. “It is very easy to clean the immediate area just above the cooking appliances and make someone think that the ductwork has been cleaned all the way to the exterior of the building. There is potential here for civil action by the restaurant owners.”
The restaurants did not use the same cleaning company.
“Our chefs get on ladders every single night and clean the vents and bottom of our hood systems with deep cleans. Just like every restaurant, we leverage licensed and bonded third-party hood cleaners. Restaurants are required to contract for quarterly cleaning, yet Rappahannock contracted for our hoods to be cleaned every single month and had been cleaned 10 days prior to our fire,” said Travis Croxton, owner of Rappahannock restaurant.
The four other cooking-related fires that took place this year occurred at a cafeteria at the University of Richmond, the Panda Express restaurant on Grace Street, the Continental Westhampton on Grove Avenue, and Wong Gonzalez on East Grace Street.
“It’s probably a little higher than before,” Creasy said Tuesday of the number of cooking-related fires this year compared to past years.
In 2016, there was one fire in a restaurant in the cooking area. The year before, six restaurant fires were contained to a cooking area, while a seventh restaurant fire extended into the chimney.
The Virginia Statewide Fire Prevention Code states that kitchen hoods and ducts over cooking appliances must be cleaned regularly depending on the frequency of grease buildup, Creasy said.
“So it is a judgment call by the manager or the fire inspector if we happen to see a problem on an inspection,” he said.
Creasy said it appears that when cleaning companies were used, only part of the duct work was cleaned.
Fire inspectors plan to walk around Shockoe Bottom on Wednesday to hand out brochures and discuss the cleaning issue with restaurant managers.
On July 20, firefighters responded to Peking Restaurant, a Shockoe Slip restaurant, after a fire began with a cooker in the basement kitchen, which sent flames to the lower floor’s ceiling.
On July 8, a three-alarm fire closed the nearby Tobacco Company restaurant indefinitely. Tobacco Company representatives would not comment on when the restaurant may reopen.
The Tobacco Company fire was preceded by one at the Carytown restaurant Don’t Look Back on July 1. That restaurant will be closed at least for six more months.
Earlier in the year, the seafood restaurant Rappahannock on East Grace Street was closed for more than six weeks after a March 5 fire.
“It seems like every week there is another one,” Hamooda Shami, the owner of Don’t Look Back, said of the restaurant fires in Richmond in recent months.
Shami said a combination of employee error and the setup of the range hood in the kitchen area contributed to the grease fire that ended up damaging the kitchen and the apartment above, where the landlord and his wife lived. The couple were displaced from the apartment and are living at an extended-stay motel.
Shami said the flat-top grill was left on overnight and, in addition, grease built up in an inch-wide gap between the range hood and the wall. Heat coming off the flat top liquefied the built-up grease and set it on fire.
The damage estimate is unknown at this point, he said, but the number will be “substantial.” Shami said the restaurant does schedule range hood cleanings with an outside company, but his insurance company is not seeking any compensation from that company.