Three-alarm blaze guts cooking store

Publication Date: Friday Dec 31, 1999

Three-alarm blaze guts cooking store

HomeChef cooking school's future on University Avenue uncertain

by Jennifer Kavanaugh

Palo Alto residents gravitated toward the HomeChef store's burned-out shell all week long, surveying the destruction of the city's worst fire in three years and reminiscing about the popular University Avenue cooking school and store.

A portion of University Avenue shut down Monday night as 40 firefighters from four local departments battled the blaze--which started in the back of the store and eventually broke through the roof--for more than three-and-half hours. The fire attracted crowds of gawkers and stranded people whose cars were parked near the scene.

"We just bought a cooking thermometer a few days ago and then we see (the store) up in flames on the news," said Palo Alto resident David Dambrau, who came with his wife, Susan, to view the aftermath of Monday night's fire. "It was a very nice store. I hope it comes back."

With the exception of a chain-link fence blocking access to the building and nearby Kipling Street, the HomeChef store looks fairly intact from the outside. But a glance through the window reveals the main casualty of the three-alarm, $1.2 million fire: the building's roof, reduced to pieces and collapsing onto the ground floor. Fire officials determined the fire was caused by a water heater in the back of the store.

Three years ago, a three-alarm fire destroyed three businesses on Hamilton Avenue, including the Pacific Mountaineer store. Although not as destructive, the Monday fire upset many in the community.

Judith Ets-Hokin, founder of the eight-store, San Francisco-based chain, said it was terrible that the Palo Alto HomeChef, "our most beautiful store," was destroyed. But the store's appeal, she said, was not in the merchandise or pretty surroundings, but in the camaraderie of the daily cooking classes.

"The essence of Home Chef is to enhance people's lives," Ets-Hokin said. "It's not to sell pots and pans. Even though the physical facility burned down, the essence of HomeChef remains. What we've lost can be rebuilt."

But it will be some time before University Avenue sees a new and improved HomeChef--or any other store--at that location, said Fred Herman, the city's chief building official. The 1930s building isn't listed on the city's register of historic buildings, Herman said, so the owner can choose to demolish or rehabilitate the structure. But either option will be expensive.

"What's left is the four concrete walls and some columns," Herman said.

Six employees and several students were getting ready for a sushi-preparing class around 5:30 p.m. Monday evening when they first noticed smoke coming from the storage area near the back of the store. Fire crews from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View and Santa Clara County responded to the scene and were confronted with an intense fire that required firefighters to crawl into the building, rather than walking upright, said Fire Marshal Dan Heiser. No one was injured.

Heiser dismissed concerns that the department itself may have contributed to the fire's spread by bringing in large fans to clear the smoke just before the fire broke through the ceiling. Heiser said firefighters needed to clear out the smoke before determining if the fire was out, adding they were ventilating a completely separate area from where the flames reemerged.

Fire investigators traced the fire to a water heater at the back of the store. Though Heiser would not elaborate, he indicated that materials stored near the water heater were involved in fire and said, "The fire department recommends that businesses keep combustibles away from sources of ignition."

Heiser also said firefighting efforts were complicated by the lack of a sprinkler system in the building. He added, however, that the building was not required to have one in place.

The building, former home of Swain's House of Music, has been in the Swain family since 1963, said owner Pauline Swain. She was proud of the old building, which was designed by architect Birge Clark in the 1930s, and she said its loss is almost too painful for words.

"When I woke up in the morning, I was hoping it had been a bad dream," Swain said. "But it wasn't."

Swain said she's waiting for the engineering reports to come back before she decides the building's fate. She said she was happy with HomeChef as a tenant, but it's too soon to tell if the store can return. "We don't know what our future plans are," she said.

Though the store belonged to a California-wide chain, it had inspired a loyal following during its four years in Palo Alto. Former cooking instructors and students describe a camaraderie that extended beyond the store itself, with former students meeting to share recipes and cook together long after the classes ended.

"I thought it was excellent, one of the best cooking classes I had ever taken," said Palo Alto resident Sandi Spector, who took one of the store's first classes. "You are supposed to do recipes as homework, and when you came back each week, people would say, 'Oh, you had that problem? I did too,' and you help each other."

Outside the store, someone left a bouquet of flowers with a card that read: "Home Chef!! Come back soon," and signed, "The Cooks of Palo Alto."

Ets-Hokin said the amount of community support since the fire has made her focus on the positive side.

"I'd rather discuss what we've gained," Ets-Hokin said. "(Monday) night, I had dozens of calls from customers and employees from the other stores. We have so much support in the community that I think what we've gained is ... the knowledge of how important a role Home Chef plays in the community."

Building official Herman said he hopes the city will be able to reopen Kipling Street by early next week. HomeChef representatives said anyone who had been scheduled to take classes at the Palo Alto store may take them at the other Bay area locations: San Francisco, the Westgate Mall in San Jose, Walnut Creek and Corte Madera. 

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