Fire guts Blue Island restaurant
Maple Tree Inn’s owners, who had family upstairs, say they will rebuild
The owners of the popular Maple Tree Inn restaurant in Blue Island’s historic district vowed to reopen after an early morning fire Friday caused extensive damage to the business.
The mayor of Blue Island said the city is studying what financial assistance it can provide the owners and that the cause of the fire was still under investigation.
The call came in about 2:45 a.m., and firefighters from several surrounding communities assisted in battling the blaze, according to Blue Island fire Chief Dan Reda.
The owners’ family lives in an apartment above the restaurant, 13301 S. Olde Western Ave., and the family was able to escape the fire safely, Reda said. The building sustained heavy fire, smoke and water damage, he said.
The fire was out by 6 a.m., and crews were working on a ruptured gas line.
Investigators from the state fire marshal’s office were on the scene Friday.
Maple Tree Inn owners Katie Orr and Erich Wennberg, who are married, issued a statement Friday morning:
“While we are devastated emotionally by this tragedy, we want to assure everyone that no person was hurt in the fire. The Maple Tree Inn has had multiple, successful chapters, and there will be many more. Our team of employees is one of the best ever assembled in our 43 years of business, and we will
rebuild around them. We want to praise the firefighters’ swift response and work in keeping our neighboring businesses safe and attempting to preserve the character of the building.”
The restaurant is wellknown for its Cajun/Creole cuisine.
Outside the Maple Tree Inn, Reda said, “It was a tough fire. It could have been a lot worse.”
Firefighters were hampered in their efforts to extinguish the blaze because they couldn’t immediately gain access to a shut-off valve for a natural gas pipeline serving the structure, he said. A section of sidewalk had to bedugup to get to the valve, he said.
Reda said that fire departments from surrounding communities, including Alsip, Calumet Park, Dolton, Hazel Crest, the Orland Fire Protection District and Robbins, assisted and that an estimated 75 to 80 firefighters were involved.
The chief said that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was also assisting in the investigation of the fire’s cause. He said it is standard procedure for ATF to be involved in cases where fire breaks out at a business serving alcohol.
Blue Island Mayor Domingo Vargas said he arrived at the fire scene about 6:30 a.m. He said the city is researching what financial assistance it can offer to help the owners reopen.
“The city’s backing them, the community’s backing them,” Vargas said, standing outside the restaurant. “They’ve always been an anchor of the community.”
The Maple Tree Inn is in a business district where a certain percentage of sales tax revenue is diverted back to the district to assist businesses with work such as facade improvements, and Vargas said it is possible that sales tax money could be used for exterior work at the restaurant.
Thecity had made equipment, such as a large dump truck and front-end loaders, available to help remove debris, the mayor said.
Vargas said the owners “are distraught,” but he was confident the business would reopen.
Judy Tuma, longtime manager at Jebens Hardware just south of the Maple Tree Inn, said news of the firewas “devastating.”
“Katie and Erich put their hearts into (the business),” she said. “I hurt for their hurt.”
OpenTable ranked the Maple Tree Inn among the 50 best Southern restaurants in America for 2018.
According to a recent column in the Daily Southtown by Ted Slowik, the Maple Tree Inn employs about 40 people. Wennberg cited the staff, including chefsMark Smith and Mike Downs and bar manager Emily Bohn, for the restaurant’s recognition from OpenTable.
Orr’s father, Charlie Orr, founded the Maple Tree Inn in 1975.
The late, self-taught chef known as “The Walrus” developed a passion for Cajun/Creole cuisine. The quest began on New Year’s Day 1980.
“While in search of a hangover cure, Charlie came across a New Orleans chef on television talking about red-eye gravy,” according to the Maple Tree Inn’swebsite.
“Intrigued, he ventured to the library and asked the librarian where he could find information on the subject.
“The librarian, who happened to be from Louisiana, asked, ‘What’s a big white guy like you want with red-eye gravy?’ The librarian turned Charlie on to a Creole cookbook, and the rest is history.”
This year the venue celebrated its 18th annual Crawfish Fest in June. A BBQ, Brews & Bluegrass Fest had been planned for thisweekend.
The Chicago Tribune contributed.
Firefighters work at the Maple Tree Inn, a restaurant in Blue Island extensively damaged by fire early Friday.
Firefighters and investigators work at the scene of the Maple Tree Inn fire on Friday. The cause of the fire is under investigation.