Wendy’s owner plans to re-open within a month

By Matt Stacionis and Melissa Westphal

Wendy’s restaurant franchisee John Niklas expects one of his DeKalb businesses to reopen within a month, despite fire that damaged both buildings over the span of a week.

Overheated grease was blamed for the the Jan. 19 and Wednesday night fires, which DeKalb Fire Chief Peter Polarek classified as accidental. Estimated damage at Wendy’s, 1321 Sycamore Road, was $50,000, leaving Niklas optimistic that the restaurant can be opened in four to five weeks.

“Looking on the bright side of a bad situation,” Niklas said, “no one inside the restaurants were injured and to my knowledge, none of the firefighters were.”

The first Wendy’s fire at 1115 W. Lincoln Highway caused an estimated $250,000 damage. After hearing about the first accident, Niklas was at a loss for words when he found out about the second.

“It was unbelievable — I was in shock,” Niklas said. “It’s such a rare occurrence, twice in five days. But now, it’s important that we focus on the cause.”

Both Wendy’s fires have put about 50 employees out of work. Niklas, who owns eight restaurants along Interstate 80, said some employees expressed the desire to stay on if the restaurants re-open, and others are being paid to help clean up the fire’s aftermath.

“We were looking forward to our first full week back with the students,” Niklas said. “Students make up our workforce and our customer group.”

Although Polarek said both incidents are accidental, fire and insurance officials continue to investigate the restaurants.

“Obviously, there are similarities between the two fires, looking at the fact the other Wendy’s burned less than a week ago,” Polarek said. “Our investigators are working with employees from both restaurants, advising them to look at their procedures and heating equipment.”

Polarek also said they’re comparing DeKalb Wendy’s procedures to procedures at other franchise chains all over the country.

“There are a great number of restaurants in DeKalb, and occasionally you see things like this, but not often,” Polarek said. “Usually, the fires are contained to the hood and duct equipment, like this was. It also depends on the nature of the business, whether fires can be blamed on equipment failure or procedures. Most are equipped with suppression units. We really don’t see a phenomenon in DeKalb.”

Tom & Jerry’s restaurant manager Sarah Wilkins said one way a grease fire can occur is by raising the fryers about 350 degrees.

“[We] have had fires in the past, but they were put under control immediately,” WIlkins said. “They are common, and one of the many ways that they can occur is having the temperature too high.”

Harold’s Chicken Shack manager Reggie Anderson said his restaurant has never had a grease fire. He also makes sure the fryer temperature does not exceed 325 to 350 degrees.

Polarek emphasized the flammability of oil and the importance of proper extinguishing methods.

“When a person tries to cool down the oil, it extinguishes to a point, but is so hot that it burns on its own,” Polarek said. “And you don’t want to throw water on it for fear of splashing the hot oil. The Wendy’s managers used the dry chemical solution to a point, but then had to turn to water, causing the fire to flare up the vent system.”