Fire guts Blue Is­land restau­rant

Maple Tree Inn’s own­ers, who had fam­ily up­stairs, say they will re­build

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Mike Nolan

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.

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