If not for an early-morning fire that destroyed their workplace, the wait staff and bartenders at The Oyster House would have been slammed with a Friday afternoon rush of hungry and thirsty Lakefair customers.
But instead of counting tips, five or six Oyster House employees stood together that afternoon behind the burned-out, roofless shell of the former iconic Olympia landmark. They hugged one another, shared stories, and said they would soon head to Hannah’s Bar and Grille to drown their collective sorrows.
“We’re just shocked,” said Elbert Conklin, who has worked as a bartender at The Oyster House the past four years. His wife, Lindsey, works there as a server. “This is not just our place of employment, it’s family. We’re all very close-knit.”
Lisa LaRue, a server and manager at The Oyster House, said the economic impact on the 50 or so employees now out of work is hard to calculate.
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“A lot of the guys here work paycheck to paycheck, and that’s what hurts,” LaRue said.
The Oyster House’s owner, Tom Barrett, was able to salvage its distinctive neon-lit Oyster sign, Lindsey Conklin said. She added that she heard about the fire immediately after it started close to midnight Friday, when a downtown bartender called her. The news spread quickly among employees, she added.
Hostess Stephanie Whitfield said she “just started crying” when she heard of the fire early Friday morning. “I’ve been in shock all day,” she said.
Added Lindsey Conklin: “It’s heartbreaking.”
A passerby called 911 about 12:17 a.m. Friday, reporting smoke coming from inside the Oyster House, located at 320 Fourth Avenue in the heart of downtown Olympia. When fire crews forced their way through the front doors five minutes later, they reported heavy smoke and fire near the kitchen areas. Firefighters then cut a hole through the roof and found heavy fire underneath.
As conditions deteriorated, they retreated from the inside of the building about 12:45 a.m. and started attacking the fire from the outside, Olympia Deputy Fire Chief Greg Wright said.
The Olympia landmark, at a location that has been home to Olympia’s oyster industry since the turn of the century, was destroyed.
The site has held a restaurant since about the 1940s and was an oyster-shucking establishment in the early 1900s.
The cause of the fire is under investigation. Wright said due to the heavy damage to the restaurant – the roof caved in, and the city had to tear down the upper, brick portions of its walls – it could take weeks before a cause of the fire is pinned down. Fire inspectors were focusing their investigation in the kitchen and bathroom areas, he said.
Standing outside his restaurant Friday afternoon, Barrett vowed to rebuild.
“We have a lot of loyal customers,” said Barrett, who has owned the Oyster House since 1995. “We’re going to get it built back up for them as close as we can to what it was.”
Employees, like Conklin, said they are grateful for Barrett’s pledge to rebuild. But a city official said the process could take time.
The city of Olympia will allow The Oyster House to rebuild in the same waterfront location, subject to some process, said Keith Stahley, director of Community Planning and Development, on Friday. A rebuilt restaurant would not only be subject to the city’s permitting process, but the city’s hearing examiner would also have to review the case due to its waterfront location, he said. The city’s draft Shoreline Master Program, which would disallow over-water structures like The Oyster House, wouldn’t apply. Stahley said it isn’t likely to be in place for another year.
Wright said Friday he could not put a dollar loss on the damage caused by the fire. But according to the Thurston County Assessor’s Office, the value of the land where The Oyster House is located is valued at $913,300, and the property itself is valued at $594,300.
Patrick Knutson, a co-owner of the Budd Bay Cafe, said he sympathizes with the losses felt by Barrett and Oyster House employees. He added that several employees of Budd Bay Cafe also worked part-time at The Oyster House, and are now looking to replace that income.
“It’s just terrible,” Knutson said. “The staff are all friends and family.”
Knutson, who said he has been working in restaurants his entire adult life, said restaurants always run a higher risk of fire than other types of businesses, because they include multiple sources of open flame. In a restaurant, gas lines, flat grills and ovens are all places where a fire can start, he said.
The destruction of The Oyster House is a loss to all of downtown, Knutson added. “We don’t want a dead spot on the boardwalk in downtown Olympia,” he said.
On Friday afternoon, the smiling families and tourists walking on Fourth Avenue during Lakefair – a carnival on Capitol Lake the third weekend of every July – took snapshots of the fire damage at the Oyster House. By Friday afternoon, its remains were surrounded by a chain-link fence to keep people out, as the structure itself is unstable and unsafe, Wright said.
Said passerby Kelly Brathovd, a lifelong Olympia resident: “It’s part of Olympia, and it’s a mess. It’s sad, really sad to see. I just can’t believe it’s gone.”
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445
Matt Batcheldor contributed to this report.