The faint acrid smell of smoke drifted on a cold Saturday morning wind.
Piles of charred debris — the blackened ruins of two longtime North Jacksonville restaurants — stood silent witness to a fire that struck the community two days earlier.
Junior’s Seafood Restaurant & Grill along with the adjacent Junior’s Famous Sandwiches were destroyed by fire shortly after dawn on Thursday.
Owned by the same family, the sandwich shop opened 44 years ago and then expanded in 1999 to include the seafood restaurant.
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“It was definitely a shock,” owner Abraham Hassan told the Florida Times-Union on Sunday. “We are really, really grateful that this happened hours before our opening and that no staff or customers were inside. Also, we are beyond grateful that no firefighters were hurt.”
Hassan’s partner who is also his uncle, Romal Kassees, opened the sandwich shop which started the family catering business and also includes a Junior’s Seafood Restaurant & Grill in Callahan.
“It’s definitely too early to say 100%, but so far it appears to be an accidental electrical fire,” Hassan said of the blaze that swept through restaurants on North Main Street.
The state fire marshal’s office is investigating the cause and origin of the fire, a normal procedure in such cases.
Due to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend and holiday on Monday, neither an update on the investigation nor a damage estimate was available.
A total of 65 firefighters from the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, aided by 25 fire engines, battled the blaze for just under an hour before bringing it under control, the JFRD spokesperson said, Captain Eric Prosswimmer. He was called around 7:20 a.m.
“They were greeted with a light smoke as they arrived, but that [the fire] was charging in the attic,” he said, noting that a second alarm went off as the fire grew more difficult to control.
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At one point, firefighters were ordered out of the burning building for safety reasons.
“We had to pull our crews back a bit because we were worried about a flashover due to high heat in the attic,” Prosswimmer said. “They pulled them out, cooled that down, put the crews back in place and worked to save that building.”
Devastation but not an end
The “open” sign will once again shine in their restaurant’s window, according to Hassan.
“We will definitely reopen,” he said.
Hassan said the deadline cannot be set until the insurance is settled. The timing will also depend on the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already slowed down the process.
“We plan to set up a food truck and the sandwich shop to do a hot dog stand while we rebuild,” he said. “We’re still working out the details on that. … One of our other blessings is that our staff are ready to present in any way we can.”
Hassan announced plans to reopen in an emotional post on the restaurants’ Facebook pages on Saturday.
“Just like the incessant smoke that rose Thursday morning, we will rise too!” says the post.
“Thursday we temporarily lost our original ‘home’. but we did not lose our Junior’s Family,” he posted. “The fire may have blanketed the walls in ash, but the heart and soul of the restaurant remains intact. The heart is fueled by our staff and the soul by our amazing customers. Both of those things have not succumbed to the fire.”
Junior’s employs approximately 25 people between the two restaurants.
“Honestly, all of our staff are devastated because so many have worked together there for years,” Hassan said, noting that they plan to keep them together.
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“We don’t let a single member of staff go,” he said. “Love from the community keeps us optimistic and moving forward. Our staff take pride in making everyone feel like family and it reminds our team how beautiful that is.”
Hassan said they intend to keep staff on the payroll. Some offered to go work at the Junior’s of Callahan. Others who cannot ride there will still be paid until the North Main Street location reopens, he said.
Side by side, the restaurants in Jacksonville share a one-story building. The seafood restaurant is at 9349 while the sandwich shop is next door at 9347 N. Main St.
City signs – visible from outside the yellow caution tape surrounding the burned building – indicate that the structure will be demolished.
Customers ready to help
Richard and Wanda Edmonds are regulars at Junior’s Seafood, located about five minutes from their home.
They have been dining there for about 20 of their 48 years of marriage. They got to know Hassan as well as the waiters and cooks.
“It’s just devastating,” said Wanda Edmonds. “I hate that this happened to them. Abraham is a really nice person. He would do anything in the world for anyone. It really is a family restaurant, and Abraham cares a lot about this community.”
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The morning of the fire, the couple heard the sirens, then their son called and told them that Junior had burned down. On Saturday, the couple drove by to check on the closed restaurant.
“Abraham and his whole family are like gold… Anything we could ever need, you know, he’d be there,” Richard Edmonds said.
Hassan said their customers are like family, whether new or regular.
“We believe that when they take a chair at one of our tables, we want them to feel like family,” he said. “Especially in these past two years with COVID, that sense of family for our staff and customers has been even more important.”
Ken Jefferson, another longtime client and former spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, created a GoFundMe account – “Love for Junior’s!” — to raise funds to help restaurants and employees.
Jefferson said he typically ate at Junior’s once or twice a week.
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“Abe and his family not only provided delicious meals at affordable prices, but also created a safe and appreciated space for all, and gave selflessly to support many organizations and causes throughout our city,” said writes Jefferson at the fundraiser. .
Hassan said the donations “will help us pay both our employees who are transferring to our Callahan site and those who cannot work at Callahan.”
The outpouring of love and support we have felt over the past week has been nothing short of overwhelming. he also said.
“Once again, we can’t thank our community and amazing customers enough during this unprecedented time,” Hassan said. “We know better days filled with prawns, sweet tea and a full Main Street dining hall are just around the corner.”