Augie Vitiello’s resolve to rebuild his popular family-style restaurant was both strong and immediate, even as the charred remains of his business continued to smolder late Monday morning.
The chef-owner vowed he’d reopen as quickly as a he can and even suggested finding a temporary location until a new building can be built over the ruins of the old one on Church Avenue. Still, Vitiello couldn’t mask the a sense of sadness as he watched an excavator make short work of the burned-out building that had housed his restaurant for nearly a decade.
“We’re going to come back to this location — to this spot,” he said, pausing as the jaws of the machine effortlessly ripped at the building’s blackened roof. “But it’s hard right now.”
Ballston Spa Fire Chief Paul Marozzi said the early Monday morning fire appears to have broken out in the basement of the building, but an exact cause hasn’t been determined. He said the fire was initially reported by Stewart’s employees coming into work and was already fully involved by the time his crews arrived on the scene around 4:30 a.m.
“When we pulled up, there were flames showing from the front side of the building and as we made our initial attack found a heavy fire load in the basement,” he said. “At that point, the structure was becoming unstable, so we pulled our crews out and attempted to fight the fire from outside.”
Marozzi said combustible materials in the building’s dry storage area fueled the blaze, which quickly spread to other sections of the building. Flames also ate away at the business’s first floor, which eventually collapsed into the basement.
“It had been going for a while before we arrived,” Marozzi said. “It was kept in the basement pretty tight, so we were behind the eight ball when we got here.”
At the peak of the blaze, Marozzi said, there were more than 70 firefighters on the scene, including several called in from Saratoga Springs. The restaurant was empty when the fire started and there were no reported injuries among firefighters.
The building was condemned by a town building inspector and demolition was well under way by 10 a.m. Marozzi said the age of the structure and its layout made the fire a tough one to bring under control; parts of the building continued to smolder late into the morning as a demolition crew pulled apart the gutted building.
“It was a very old building that had multiple additions,” Marozzi said . “When the fire gets into certain pockets, it’s very tough to get to.”
Investigators were still trying to determine a cause of the fire Monday afternoon, but it did not appear to be suspicious. Vitiello said an initial determination suggested it was electrical, though the finding was only preliminary.
Vitiello, who has worked in restaurants since he was 14, opened the first incarnation of Augie’s in the Bronx. He moved to Ballston Spa nine years ago and quickly developed a very positive reputation for both the quantity and quality of his food.
The fire broke out at a time of year that’s particularly busy. The summer race meet at the Saratoga Race Course is well under way in nearby Saratoga Springs — something that brings added business for many area restaurants.
But Vitiello’s main concern Monday wasn’t for the business he’d lose, rather for the 10 part- and full-time workers who will be without jobs until he can re-open.
By the afternoon, he had started an online fundraising campaign for them, promising all donors a proportionate discount when the restaurant reopens.
Vitiello said he’ll use the funds to assist employees while they are out of work and donate any excess funds to local homeless shelters if rebuilding occurs faster than expected. Roughly $2,000 had already been donated by early Monday evening.
Vitiello lamented the loss of his restaurant — a comfortable place that had walls covered in sports memorabilia lost in the flames. But he was glad there were no injuries and was quick to praise the effort of firefighters trying to save the structure.
“It’s tough,” he said, watching the excavator topple another corner of the building. “It’s really tough.”