A fire that broke out late Wednesday night at a Midtown shopping plaza destroyed Bill's Cafe and AJ's Quick Clean Center before firefighters extinguished it.
Firefighters responded to the fire at 3175 Middlefield Road around 11:15 p.m. They arrived to find flames largely at AJ's Quick Clean Center, Palo Alto fire Battalion Chief Ryan Stoddard said. The blaze extended through a common attic space shared with three other businesses, Philz Coffee, Bill's Cafe and Palo Alto Fine Wine and Spirits, which also sustained damage.
Stoddard said that based on the magnitude of the flames, it appeared that the fire was burning for some time before firefighters arrived.
"It was ripping out the front when we showed up, with heavy flame coming out of the laundromat," Stoddard said.
The roof above AJ's and Bill's Cafe collapsed, mostly impacting the dry cleaning business. Crews spent about 90 minutes getting the fire under control, according to Stoddard.
It appears the blaze started at AJ's, which was "completely burned" based on char patterns, Stoddard said. The damage there was significant enough to burn through electrical panels, which melted and burned. Both the dry cleaning business and Bill's Cafe were heavily damaged Thursday morning and it remained unclear whether the building would need to be rebuilt entirely or if can be salvaged through major remodeling, according to city officials.
Stoddard estimated the fire caused more than $1 million in damage. It appears AJ's and Bill's Cafe will need to be rebuilt. The Philz Coffee and Palo Alto Fine Wine and Spirits, which are the bookends of the strip mall, appear to be salvageable. Fire Department officials also arrived to perform shoring work on the businesses to make them safe to enter.
Crews made sure the fire didn't extend to other parts of the building before wrapping up their response around 2:30 a.m. Thursday. They stayed on fire watch into the early morning hours.
All the businesses had been closed and locked when firefighters reached the scene. No injuries were reported. Electrical and gas services were shut down to all four businesses.
Fire investigators were at the scene Thursday morning to identify the cause of the fire. The work will involve going through the rubble and looking for burn patterns to determine where they fire started.
Red tape blocked access to the four impacted businesses, which were closed on Thursday morning as fire investigators and a building inspector were on-site assessing the damage. Roughly 10 hours after the fire broke out, the interior of AJ's Quick Clean Center and Bill's Cafe was gutted and debris was visible on the sidewalk facing Middlefield Road.
Neighbors out for their morning walks stopped to survey the damage outside the plaza and mourned the loss of two local businesses. AJ's Quick Clean Center, also known as AJ Cleaners, has been at its location since 1962. Bill's Cafe opened the Middlefield Road restaurant in 2015.
"I'm just sad," said resident Suzanne Usiskan, who lives in the neighborhood. "Everyone from these neighborhoods go to these places."
Judith and Jerry Klein, who eat at Bill's Cafe about twice a month, said the restaurant is popular among area residents.
"It's a neighborhood spot," Judith Klein said. "Everyone comes here, you meet people, you sit outside and the service is great."
Vice Mayor Greer Stone, who lives just north of the shopping plaza, said he was shocked to see the heavy damage to businesses that he normally visits on a daily basis. He surveyed the scene on Thursday morning and talked to firefighters and a store manager at Philz, his regular coffee shop.
The big outstanding question, he said, is whether the entire building could be saved of if it would have to be rebuilt. He noted that Midtown already has a dearth of resident-serving businesses, which makes the loss of places like AJ's and Bill's particularly difficult.
"It's a dramatic loss for the Midtown community and the city as a whole, as well as the region," Stone said. "Any time over the weekend that I visit any place in the shopping center, it's absolutely packed. It's a magnet for people in the region."
When reached by phone, Bill's Cafe franchise owner Nick Tapelis said he was busy making calls to deal with "this mess." He didn't have an estimate regarding the cafe's losses.
"It doesn't look good," he said on Thursday afternoon.
Christy Smith, vice president of marketing for Philz, said in an email that no Philz employees were injured in the fire.
"We are working with authorities to assess the condition of our Middlefield store location and will be closed until further notice. Customers can visit the nearby Forest Avenue and Sunnyvale locations," she said.
Palo Alto crews received assistance from the Santa Clara County and Mountain View fire departments, as well as the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety, in putting out the blaze.
"Crews did a really good job of getting knockdown," Stoddard said. While it took awhile to reach the attic, "we easily could've lost that whole complex."