September fire destroyed interior, renovations to cost at least $1.5 million
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Ashland Dairy Queen Owner Jason Federico opened the back door to the fast food franchise restaurant on Tuesday afternoon, but instead of a bustling and cheery ice cream eatery, he stepped into an echoey, bare-bones remnant that still smelled of smoke, a far cry from what it was when he opened it in April 2022.
“The shell is okay, but everything inside from the studs in was lost,” Federico said, noting many still think the restaurant is open since it looks OK from a distance.
“I get asked daily, ‘I thought you guys were open,’” he said.
The Exit 19 franchise off South Valley View Road has been fenced off and closed since a fire started in the restaurant’s kitchen on Sept. 23, 2023. The incident caused “well over $1.5 million” in damages, Federico said, but resulted in no injuries for employees or customers who were inside at the time. It did close the restaurant for the past four months, and displaced 24 employees.
“It’s been really, how do I put this, surreal,” Federico told Ashland.news. “The thing is, it’s not just me, it’s affecting all my employees that were here.
“They have work one day, and they’re basically unemployed the next. There’s no insurance for them,” he added. “So I feel terrible for them.”
He anticipates several former employees will return to the new and improved operation.
“The cleanup has been done for six weeks,” Federico said.
He noted there’s been a delay in starting the rebuild due to waiting on an insurance claims adjuster, but tentatively anticipates construction to start on Thursday, Feb. 1, or early next week. With tentative plans to reopen by June 15, he noted that if time frames allowed, he would prefer to open in May, or even April.
Federico said his insurance has already paid for new equipment for the new store, which will largely look the same as it did before, aside from a few aesthetic details.
He said the cause of the fire is still under investigation. He said he was told it might take six to eight months from the time of the fire to determine the root cause.
Federico thanked the state and local fire marshals for their thorough work following the fire.
Sept. 23, 2023
It was a Saturday and Federico was salmon fishing when he got the call from his wife, Katie (he caught a salmon, by the way).
A fire had started in the Ashland DQ branch and Katie sent him photos. The couple own three other DQ franchises, one in White City, and two in Grants Pass.
At the store, a customer who had come in ended up assisting employees who tried their best to extinguish flames, but could not.
“They did everything right,” Federico said of his employees quick actions. “The no. 1 thing is, they left (safely).”
Federico pointed to those same fire extinguishers that were used to attack the blaze, which are still on site.
“It started right here, in the wall of the freezer,” Federico said. “They couldn’t extinguish it because it was in between the outside and inside wall.”
He said the fire burned through the ceiling and then the roof. Flames even melted a C02 sensor.
“It was melting plastic right here,” he added.
He pointed toward the rafters where the fire had traveled up the truss.
The floor, “It was black,” he said.
“It wasn’t that it moved fast, it just got hot,” he added. “Hot as h–ll.”
The restaurant was designed to be neutral with air pressure, but when employees and customers left the store, the opening of the door caused the fire to suck in so much oxygen that is created almost a backdraft, Federico said.
Federico stopped to pick up a chunk of remaining tile from the floor before holding it out for the reporter to see.
“It was so hot, it melted the enamel off of the tile,” he said.
‘We’ve been lucky’
Federico, while honest about the struggle it has been to prepare to rebuild the interior from scratch, remains optimistic about rebuilding and humble about the situation.
“It’s emotional,” he said. “At some point, you’re like, man, I spent all this time building it just to redo it … People here in town know exactly what that feeling’s like.”
He notes during the interview that many others in Ashland, Talent, and Phoenix, lost their homes and possessions in the Almeda Fire.
A home he and his wife once lived in in Phoenix burned during that fire, though they were not living in it at the time.
“I have an understanding of what they’ve gone through,” he said.
“We were only here 16 months,” he said.
Federico noted it can take time to create a seamless and efficient environment at each franchise.
“Our business … we had just kind of gotten the right crew and management together.”
Federico said when he opened the eatery, the employee pool was as low as it ever has been following the COVID-19 pandemic.
He’s seeing an uptick now in more people applying for open positions.
“There’s more people looking for work,” Federico said. “We understand there’s going to be hurdles in front of us getting back open.
“People still think we’re open so they pull in here all the time.”
During the interview, two vehicles did just that, making a quick turnaround once they saw the fencing blocking the entrance.
“When we start (construction), I’m going to put a sign back up that says opening spring of 2024,” he said.
It’s not lost on Federico, either, that his Dairy Queen location was rebuilt on the same site as the former Burger King, which burned in the Almeda Fire.
When he first opened the eatery on April 29, 2022, his fourth franchise restaurant, he noted that the seating area tables had survived the Almeda Fire’s destruction.
The seats again survived this time around, and he plans to keep at least keep one of the tables as a memento left behind from what the fire took away.
“We have a lot of stuff to work with here,” he said. “We’ve been lucky.”
R.A. Murphy Construction, which initially built the franchise restaurant, will handle construction rebuild as well, along with all of the same subcontractors.
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.