Community rallies around St. Petersburg restaurant after fire
Babalu is a name that has stood out on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg for decades. The restaurant has been open since 1946, but a grease fire nearly caused the eatery to close on Sunday, June 7.
"As we came around the corner, we saw all the lights flashing, the sirens going," said owner Chip Pitts, describing the moment he and his wife, Lorraine, saw the flames coming from their business.
"We were shocked. Overwhelmed with the idea that this actually did happen," said Lorraine Pitts.
The grease fire sparked on a grill in the kitchen. Flames grew slowly, eventually taking over the kitchen.
The damage left a gaping hole in the roof of the kitchen, blackened walls and melted plastic food containers. It wasn't enough to force the owners to shut down.
"We rented equipment and put it in place. We started cooking our whole menu from a makeshift kitchen in the back," said Chip.
The owners created a kitchen in the parking lot, making food under a tent and serving it to customers inside, in plastic baskets.
"A lot of people didn't realize that we'd had a fire here," added Pitts.
That came to an end Friday morning, when a health inspector shut down the outdoor operation.
The setback only made the Pitts more resilient and more creative.
"We have a lot of employees that count on us for their income. They're single moms and lower income families," said Lorraine Pitts.
They have moved the operation into the eating area of Babalu, serving sandwiches, soups, and any other items that do not require a stovetop.
The couple expects kitchen repairs to last another two weeks. They plan to maintain the same business hours during the rebuilding process.