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Three-alarm fire at Chilis
Arson suspected in $100K blaze; restaurant opens back up
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Manteca firefighter Michael Hohn and Chilis Northern California Area Director Dale Bullotta survey the fire damage to the rear of the restaurant Friday morning. - photo by GLENN KAHL

Chili’s Restaurant management team hardly missed a beat Friday by opening their facility for dinner with a packed crowd after an estimated $100,000 blaze at the crack of dawn shut down their operation for most of the day.

There were an estimated 250 diners that had to be turned away throughout the day at the 2262 Daniels Street Stadium Retail Shopping Center location.

The suspicious 6 a.m. fire was reported by a half dozen commuters on their cell phones while driving down the Highway 120 Bypass. The fire brought six fire engines and 15 career personnel to the scene from both the Manteca City Fire Department and the Lathrop-Manteca Rural Fire District.

Firefighters within minutes attacked the flames that shot some 15 feet above the roof from ground level while other firemen were clamoring onto the roof of the structure.  The 100-foot aerial ladder truck was not available because it had been browned out for the day as part of the strategy to deal with budget cutbacks.

Tell-tale smoke continued to linger throughout the restaurant up until the noon hour. Waitresses had been sent home shortly after they arrived to work about 10 a.m. A staff member stood outside the restaurant and told the arriving lunch-hour customers why they were closed, adding that they planned to be open in time for dinner.

Battalion Chief Bob Davis said the building construction safeguards did what they were designed to do in preventing the fire from spreading more rapidly.  At least one sprinkler and a fire alarm went off above the freezers at the rear of the kitchen.  A heavy fire resistant outside door at the rear of the kitchen was said to have prevented the fire from breaking into the kitchen area. There was no food affected from the flames or the smoke.

Before the restaurant could reopen for their customers, the fire sprinkler system had to be recertified and the San Joaquin County Health Department was required to give its approval to the reopening of the business so they could serve customers.

The Manteca Police Department has opened an investigation into the possible cause of the fire following suspicions that it may have been intentionally set like other arson blazes within the last several years in Manteca including the Rocko’s Sports Bar building on North Main Street.  Additional fires that have been tied to arsonists on Moffat Boulevard just east of  South Main Street.

Rocko’s was torched using a dumpster that had been set against the rear of the building and set afire.  A series of other adjacent businesses were displaced by the blaze and the entire building was subsequently demolished.

Dale Bullotta, Chili’s area director of operations for Northern California, said he was surprised that the fire happened.  He said the Manteca facility is one of the highest rated restaurants in the chain in Northern California as it is one of the most successful.