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York Road Kitchen and Chocolate Bar: Finding a silver lining in a cloud of smoke

In this Following Up story we reconnect with Karim Ladhani and Sara Watson a year after a fire nearly destroyed their restaurant, the York Road Kitchen and Chocolate Bar

Karim Ladhani, Sara Watson and their four children were on vacation last summer when they got a call that their restaurant, the York Road Kitchen and Chocolate Bar, was on fire.

“We were in Spain at the time,” said Ladhani. “We finally got a vacation together as a family and in the middle of it we got a phone call.”

It had been nearly 10 years since they all got away together and, after a week in Madrid, they were preparing to travel to Barcelona.

“I headed straight back,” said Ladhani. “They finished their vacation. There was no sense in everyone coming back. What were they going to do?”

A passing motorist reported the fire around 4 a.m., Friday, July 27, 2018.

“If the good Samaritan that drove by hadn’t reported it, we would have lost the whole thing,” said Ladhani. “I don’t know who the person is. I would like to thank him so much but I don’t know who it is.”

Investigators determined the fire started in the basement but the cause is still a bit of a mystery.

“It took them a couple hours to conclude it was something on top of the dryer,” said Ladhani. “It wasn’t the dryer that caught on fire but something on top of the dryer.”

Ladhani suspects it was caused by spontaneous combustion.

“I think it is dirty rags, greasy rags,” he said. ”That’s my thought. They haven’t said so, but I have heard of it happening before.”

The fire caused more than $400,000 in structural damages.

“It’s another $200,000 in equipment,” said Ladhani. “The dryer was just below the kitchen so the whole kitchen was taken out. There is a bunch of stuff that is going to come in new. We couldn’t do anything about it – the stove, the fryers, things like that. They were right over the fire.”

Damage to the rest of the restaurant was mostly caused by smoke and water used by firefighters to extinguish the blaze.

“Basically, this is all okay except for soot,” said Ladhani as he walked around the main floor still under construction. “We had to remove the walls and the ceiling to get the soot and smoke from the insulation. The smoke damage was quite extensive.”

Their main concern in the immediate wake of the fire was for their employees who were suddenly out of a job.

“It is pretty devastating to lose your income and it was pretty hard on the staff,” said Ladhani.

“We were lucky we had provisions in place that paid the key staff over the year.”

Roughly a third of the staff are expected to return when they reopen in late-June or early-July.

“We’ve lost a couple staff and managed to keep a few,” he said. “One of our chefs went fishing in BC and just stayed there.”

Watson found a short-term contract position at the University of Guelph.

“Sara has been working in the hospitality department up there as a supervisor in training,” he said. “People up there knew her from the restaurant and she went and did her interview and got the job.”

Ladhani kept busy driving a school bus for Elliot Coach Lines.

“I’ve given that job up now,” he said. “It is going to take a lot of work to open the place and we want to make sure we dedicate 100 per cent of our time.”

The couple opened the restaurant in June 2013 to reduce their stress and restore their passion after nearly 20 years operating the The Other Brother’s, a fine dining restaurant in downtown Guelph.

Their motto and catch phrase “Unchain Yourself” reflected that sense of independence and renewal and the business was doing well before the fire.

“The whole thing has been quite daunting,” said Watson. “We are very grateful for the support we’ve received.”

They are eager to get back to business as usual.

“There has been a lot of people waiting for us to reopen and want us to do a grand opening but we are going to do a soft opening just with the new staff,” said Ladhani. “We want to make sure we get everything right.”

The fire may have disrupted their lives but Ladhani found a silver lining in the cloud of smoke.

“Too bad about the circumstances but it has given us a year off,” he said. “That’s one good way to look at it. It has given us time to get a lot closer, the two of us. It worked out nice that way. She’s a special lady.”