Rising from the Ashes
Envision the barrage of thoughts racing through your head as you learn your hopes, dreams and livelihood are going up in flames—literally.
For most of us that scenario only plays out in bad dreams. But for four Topeka businesses, that nightmare proved all too real.
Westside Stamp & Awards
Dreams up in smoke For David and Barbara Butts, Oct. 21, 2013, had been a normal Monday at WestSide Stamp & Awards. They had finished up some last minute projects, turned off the equipment, locked the doors and were back at home ready to call it a night, when the telephone rang. It was the security company calling to report that the smoke detector was going off in the store; the fire department had already been dispatched.
David assumed it was a false alarm, so he told Barbara to go to bed while he took care of the situation. Barbara said her heart sank when the phone rang again a short while later.
“It really is a fire,” David’s voice reported from the other end of the line. “And it isn’t good.”
The blaze, which started as a result of faulty wiring in the ceiling, destroyed the production area and the entire west half of the building. The heat melted equipment, and the smoke and water damage pretty much ruined anything that might have been salvageable.
Sifting through the embers In the immediate aftermath of the devastation, David and Barbara say they never once entertained the idea of calling it quits.
“We knew we were coming back,” Barbara said. “It was just a matter of how.”
The logistical planning of figuring how they could keep the business open had begun while smoke still billowed from the building. David’s job was to find a temporary place to set up operations while the building was out of commission. Barbara was responsible for taking care of the back end. She called the insurance company, bank, vendors, suppliers, and friends and family.
And support poured in. Their laser technician made a few phone calls— within a week they had a new laser. The Chamber of Commerce helped them get temporary office equipment and Dynamic Computer Solutions worked nights to get their computer system up and running as quickly as possible.
When David mentioned they needed people to help move stored inventory out of the basement of the building and into storage units, members of Christ Lutheran Church rose to the call.
“That Sunday we had more than 20 people show up with trucks and trailers to help us,” David said with tears in his eyes as he recalled the overwhelming support of the community.
Within two weeks from the date of the fire, WestSide Stamp & Awards was able to provide limited production in a temporary facility. Partnerships with local competitors allowed David and Barbara to complete outstanding jobs and keep production rolling.
“People hung with us,” Barbara said. “They were so patient with us and wanted to help us. In fact, many of them wanted to give us business before we were really ready for it.”
A fresh start While the business was operating out of its temporary location, the old building was taking shape. Having stripped the building down to its studs, David and Barbara now had the opportunity to design the new space to better meet their needs. They were able to save two of their lasers, and with the purchase of both new and used equipment, they ended up with more machines than they had before the fire.
Barbara says that while they were adequately insured for the building and loss of income, they didn’t have adequate coverage for their inventory (thankfully they hadn’t lost any of that in the fire). However, all of their customer accounts, computer files and business records were lost.
“We now have offsite data storage,” Barbara said. “We learned that lesson the hard way.”
In June of 2014, eight months after the fire, WestSide Stamp & Awards once more opened its doors at 2030 SW Fairlawn. The freshly painted walls and redesigned workspace have all but erased the evidence of the blaze, but David and Barbara will never forget.
“Surviving a fire was never on our bucket list,” Barbara said. “But we did it.”
A smoldering vision A small fire can sometimes do almost as much damage as a large one. Just ask Jim and Shanna Burgardt, owners of Pizagels. When Jim arrived at the pizza and bakery café at 5:30 a.m. on Aug. 11, 2014, he could see flames coming out of the roof. Failure of an electrical branch circuit in the ceiling, which had likely been smoldering all night, ignited when the baker turned on the exhaust system early that morning. Fire quickly spread up through the ceiling and kindled the roof.
The fire department soon had the blaze under control, and according to Jim, the damage didn’t look too extensive.
“I figured we would clean up and get going again right away,” he said.
He soon learned otherwise. While the fire hadn’t caused too much damage to the inside of the building, the smoke and water had taken its toll. Once the inspectors had gone through the structure, it was obvious renovations would be much more extensive than they originally thought.
Fanning the flames Because Jim had loss of income insurance in place, he was able to keep his store manager, Mary Blair, and his baker, Donny Williams, on staff. However, when it became apparent that repairs would take longer than expected, Jim says he knew there wouldn’t be enough money to pay the bills. In stepped Advisors Excel.
Jim was already running a small salad and sandwich bar at the Advisors Excel building. When the owners learned of his situation, they offered him a job to give him some extra cash flow.
“They were awesome to let me work for them part time while the renovations were taking place,” Jim said. “That really made handling everything easier.”
Jim and Shanna took advantage of the store being closed to renovate areas of the building that hadn’t been damaged by the fire, but were in need of updating. They put in accessible bathrooms and repaired the parking lot—both hard to accomplish with customers coming and going.
While Jim says he was adequately insured, what he hadn’t taken into account was the timeframe it would take to get the store up and running again.
“I should have had plenty of insurance to cover loss of income,” Jim said. “But the money ran out in December.”
In hindsight, Jim says he should have had a disaster plan in place to use as a guide. He also would have put together a timeline for each portion of the construction with contracts that specified completion dates to ensure the project conclusion coincided with the cash flow.
“You never think this will happen to you,” Jim said.
Pizagels began serving its pizza and sandwiches again to a crowd lined up out the door on March 30. Jim says he is overwhelmed at how supportive the Topeka community has been.
“Everyone has been so fabulous to us,” he said. “We are definitely the ‘mom and pop’ of this town.”
Top City Soda Pop
One fire—two casualties The lights from multiple fire trucks and safety vehicles lit up Kansas Avenue in the early morning hours of Jan. 2, 2015. The owners of Top City Soda Pop and HHB BBQ watched helplessly as their livelihoods appeared to be disintegrating to ash right before their eyes. The building at 720 S. Kansas, which housed both businesses, was engulfed in flames.
Top City Soda Pop owners Scott May and Brian Adams say they didn’t think the damage was too bad at first because the front of the building looked okay. However, when they went around back, the truth became clear.
“It took my breath away,” Scott said. “It was just gone—no building left.”
The fire destroyed everything—all of their equipment, bottling mechanism and inventory. Exploding kegs of root beer had left a sticky film everywhere, making cleanup next to impossible.
Burning entrepreneurial spirit For a company that had only been in business for a year, it would have been easy to say “oh well” and call it quits. Brian and Scott, however, had other ideas.
“We had started from scratch before,” Brian said. “We knew we could do it again.”
“But we aren’t starting from zero,” Scott added. “We already know what works and what doesn’t so we will be relaunching from a great place.”
The company, which makes its own line of soda pop, needed a new location that could handle its custom-built bottling equipment as well as provide easy access for delivery trucks. As fate would have it, the same day the fire occurred, Brian received a phone call from a former high school classmate who said he thought he might have the ideal space for them out at Forbes field.
Now in the process of building their new bottling system and outfitting their office space, Scott and Brian say they plan to begin production this summer. Top City Soda Pop sells its craft root beer and crème soda through retail partners around the Topeka area. The community support has been so explosive that the partners say their biggest challenge might be producing soda fast enough to keep up with demand.
“Once we are back, our numbers of retailers will probably double,” Scott said. “In a lot of ways this fire could be the best thing that ever happened to us.”
Their relationship with the owners of HHB BBQ, who also lost everything in the fire, will help Top City Soda Pop maintain a downtown presence even though their offices have moved. Once HHB BBQ reopens, it will offer Top City root beer on tap.
“We’ve been through hell together,” Brian said with a laugh. “It’s a friendship forged in fire."
Trial by fire Eddie and Kim Moege, owners of HHB BBQ, first learned their business had gone up in flames from the morning news. Eddie was going in to work at 5:30 a.m. to put the tables and chairs back into place after having had some work done on the floors; Kim was supposed to be sleeping in for a change. After watching the morning news, Eddie came back into the bedroom and said, “Something big is going on downtown. You have to get up.”
When they pulled up to their building on Kansas Avenue, they saw smoke billowing out of the windows and firemen rushing everywhere. Fearing the worst, they ran to the back of the building to check on their food trailer and smokers, but firemen blocked their path and told them to stay out of the way.
“But this is our building,” Eddie replied.
Fortunately the firemen had already pulled the smokers away from the building. But the chaos of firemen yelling at them to stay back, and watching helplessly as the building burned, took an emotional toll.
As Kim recalls the events of that morning, tears fill her eyes. The emotion is still raw, even now.
“All I could think of was ‘everything is gone. That’s our livelihood. That’s our everything.”’ Kim said.
Once the fire was contained, the damage was staggering. Eddie and Kim didn’t even try to salvage anything because they knew they would never be able to get the smoke smell out of it.
“It was easier just to count it a total loss,” Kim said.
The first thought that came to mind was ‘what now?’ Kim said they never even considered closing the business.
“We love doing this,” she said. “We’ve worked for other people our whole lives and this is our time to do what we want.”
Picking up the charred pieces Eddie and Kim learned the hard way that they were under insured. Ironically, only two weeks earlier they had discussed whether they needed loss of income insurance—not in case of a disaster, but because of the construction on Kansas Avenue.
Because they weren’t losing money as a result of the construction, they opted to forgo the additional insurance.
They have since tripled their insurance coverage, including the addition of loss of income insurance.
“We won’t be in the same predicament if something like this happens again,” Kim said.
Smokin’ again HHB BBQ had to find a new location for their “joint” but they had no intention of looking anywhere other than downtown. Even though at first glance it looks like there are plenty of available spaces, Kim said finding a place wasn’t that simple. Many of the open spaces either require too much renovation or the owners already have other plans for those locations.
Eddie and Kim had talked with Architect One more than a year ago about leasing space at 906 S. Kansas Ave., but weren’t ready to make a move at that time. This disaster helped push them to make that leap into the bigger space.
Kim says community support played a huge role in their decision on where to reopen. The day of the fire, friends, family, customers and fellow downtown businesses were there to lend their support. Within a week they had a GoFundMe page set up by Skin Art Tattoo Emporium to raise funds to help defray expenses not covered by insurance. Both DTI and the Chamber also stepped in and offered their support.
Other downtown businesses helped raise money and hundreds of people came out in support of the “Beyond the Blaze” fundraiser to help raise funds for both HHB BBQ and Top City Soda Pop.
“That was one of the reasons we wanted to stay downtown,” Kim said. “We didn’t want to leave these people who have been so supportive of us.”
HHB BBQ plans to be serving its smoked meats and root beer floats at its new location at 907 S. Kansas Ave. by the end of May.
For many business owners, watching your dreams go up in smoke might seem like the end of the world. But these resilient Topeka business owners turned tragedy into opportunity. They rose from the ashes stronger, smarter and even more determined to watch their dreams become reality.