David Kerr was enjoying his first Christmas holiday in five years when he got a phone call to say his award-winning Hamilton restaurant was on fire.
Kerr rushed back from Waihi Beach early yesterday, but could only watch in disbelief as fire crews dampened down the blackened remnants of his Pumice Bistro & Cafe.
Firefighters were alerted to the blaze just after 7am and arrived to find the building on Church Rd engulfed in flames.
Shocked staff embraced in the carpark and watched as fire crews from Pukete, Hamilton Central and Chartwell saturated the gutted structure.
"I'm looking at it but I just can't believe it," one staff member said.
"It's so unreal."
Kerr, Pumice Food Group director and one of four business owners, said it was "surreal" to see the restaurant reduced to ruin.
"We'd recently finished a refresh of the building with funky new panels and wallpaper and paint job. To see it now, far out, it's unreal," he said.
The business was insured but didn't know how long a rebuild would take.
"We love it here and don't want to move. We've got a new gym next door and have worked with them to create a healthy new menu which has proved really popular."
The number one priority over the next few days would be supporting staff, he said.
The Te Rapa restaurant is Pumice Food Group's flagship operation. The company also offers cafe, deli and private dining services. The group employs about 70 staff, with between 20-30 fulltime and part-time staff attached to the restaurant.
In September, Pumice won the best restaurant title at the prestigious Hospitality New Zealand Awards for Excellence. It was a finalist in the same category last year.
Senior Station Officer Daryl Trim from Hamilton Central Fire Station said it was too early to say what caused the blaze.
"Because it's a reasonably large commercial building it's going to take a bit of time to sift through the evidence and narrow down the cause," he said.
Trim was one of the first firefighters at the scene and described the blaze as "ferocious".
An initial concern was that the building's roof could collapse.
"We managed to control the fire reasonably quickly but it's going to take a while to dampen it down completely. We managed to stop the fire going through to the back but that still has extensive heat and smoke damage. There's no question the building will have to come down."
Trim said the building didn't have sprinklers or a brigade-connected fire alarm system - either of which could have changed the outcome of the fire.
Pumice head chef Carl Houben had been at the restaurant five years and said the damage to the building was "crazy".
It was the second restaurant he had worked at which had burnt down.
"For five years we've been trying to get everything nice and solid. We've been building a nice reputation and then this happens," Mr Houben said.
"I'm just glad no one was hurt, that's the main thing. As sad as it may seem, buildings can be rebuilt. It's just crazy the damage a fire can do.
"You have a place looking great then the next thing you see firefighters pouring water into it." Christmas-New Year was a traditionally busy time for Pumice as shoppers flocked to the city's north to shop and eat.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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