Of course no one is ever ready for a fire, but when it happened to Taki and Jeanette Sawi, while devastating, the experience could have been much worse. Their quick and positive approach enabled their restaurant to reopen in just two months. While every situation is different, there is something to take away in their story for all restaurant owners.
The Sawis own Santorini Greek Kitchen, located at 1417 Prospect Street in Indianapolis. The restaurant has a very personal feel and has meant so much to this couple since they built it nine years ago. Just after midnight on Tuesday Oct. 12, 2010, Jeanette was awoken by a phone call from Taki.
“Just come quick,” was all he said to her. An employee picked up Jeanette, who was visiting her sister at the time, and brought her there.
“The 10 fire trucks gave me an idea that there were issues,” she said. “Once I found him and he was safe, I was very relieved. He was physically ill.”
Unsure of what to do, the Sawis immediately called their insurance agent—who showed up approximately 20 minutes later and stayed with them the entire time (with the following day being the agent’s birthday). He walked them through the steps and got in touch with an adjuster while the place was being boarded up.
The fire was ruled as an inconclusive electrical fire and caused $800,000 worth of damage. The adjuster was coming from Seattle, which meant two days of waiting around. But they knew they had to rebuild—and they had to rebuild quick with the Christmas holiday coming up.
Jeanette said many customers and people from the community flooded them with support.
“It was like a sick person; people were coming by and offering their condolences—they wanted to see it for themselves.”
After the fire, the employees came back. Taki knew his employees needed money—and he needed the help. He took some time to think of a plan. He brought in his employees and said as a start, for two weeks, he could pay them what they made if they came in and helped.
He didn’t know what would happen after those two weeks, but they would take it a step at a time, and then reconvene to decide the next step.
“It was like starting over, but also we had to clean this one out,” Jeanette described.
The Sawis had to take the building down to the studs and start from scratch. Jeanette said from there, everything had to be re-ordered. Taki worked with his Product Consultant from Central, Greg Siegel, who was there the day of the fire for and has supported the Sawis throughout this process.
The couple’s insurance really helped make this process go over well. Not only do they say they have a great insurance company, but they had planned ahead for their coverage.
Taki urges people to think ahead as many of the items may no longer be available. In that case, some of the upgrades may be more expensive. Perhaps a computer system was purchased for $600 but now to replace it, its $1700. Keep those things in mind because they can add up quickly.
After the first two weeks, he decided the next step for his employees in the interim was unemployment. He called the unemployment office, which asks a series of questions. He knew this would be worth it and it would last for five weeks.
Jeanette said the community provided support throughout the rebuilding process for them and their employees from dropping off checks to holding fundraisers. Also, Southeast Community Services in Indianapolis helped them financially as well.
During the rebuilding, while stressful, Jeanette described the process as going well.
“Maneuvering the government system is always a challenge with permits, but overall, things went fairly smoothly,” she said.
Jeanette then proceeded to explain how Taki’s persistence made the rebuilding process go quickly.
She said if someone tells her they will email her a document, she trusts they will send it and leave. However, when someone says that to Taki, he will sit in the chair and wait with his phone until the document is sent.
“He just doesn’t take no for an answer. That’s the bottom line,” Jeanette said about her husband. “If there’s something he’s working on, it takes precedence.”
The persistence and hard work paid off. They re-opened on December 12, two months to the day of the fire, for a fundraiser for Southeast Community Services. The following week they had a soft opening then had their grand opening on December 20.
“We were crazy busy those first two weeks. There were a lot of people who hadn’t heard of us before, and of course there were some regulars,” Jeanette described, who later came to realize many of the regulars waited awhile before coming back to avoid the crowds—which meant they gained more business.
When the Sawis rebuilt, they didn’t change much. Everything in the restaurant was fine the way it was, but they did use this as an opportunity to slightly change a few things to make it a little more user friendly.
For instance they added a ramp in place of a couple steps and shortened the bar to add more tables (as most people stood at the bar while waiting for a table anyway).
Now the restaurant is up and running and is better than ever. While the fire felt like such a burden in the beginning, it all ended up working out really well in the end.
Taki’s Advice and Things to Learn from the Sawi’s Experience
- It can happen to anyone.
- Stay organized.
- Take it one step at a time. Don’t rush, it can take you back.
- When planning and laying out a new restaurant, think about what may pose as a problem later on (i.e. would it make more sense to have a ramp instead of stairs?)
- When choosing insurance, be sure you’re truly covered and think about upgrades, which can be more expensive than you think.
- Take a look at your current insurance agent—if you don’t trust them, or you don’t feel they set you as a priority now, imagine what it could be like if you were to have a fire.
- Be persistent—you are a top priority.