July 8, 2001
Duluth firefighters battle a fire that destroyed the Hardee’s Restaurant near Miller Hill Mall on July 8, 2001. No one was injured in the fire, which a manager said started in an office. (Ann Arbor Miller / News Tribune)
FIRE DESTROYS HARDEE’S BY MALL
BLAZE ATTRACTS CROWD TO RESTAURANT NEAR MILLER HILL MALL
By Elizabeth Gudrais, News Tribune, July 9, 2001
Now there’s one less place to get fast food in Duluth.
A fire destroyed the Hardee’s Restaurant near Miller Hill Mall Sunday afternoon, leaving 30 workers jobless.
Twenty-four firefighters spent more than two hours fighting the blaze with three high-powered ladder hoses, using about 250,000 gallons of water.
No one was injured in the fire. Duluth Assistant Fire Chief Richard Mattson called the restaurant a total loss.
Hardee’s general manager Melissa Moretto said she suspected the blaze was an electrical fire, though she wasn’t sure.
The fire began in an office in the back of the restaurant, which is at 1201 Miller Trunk Highway.
Moretto said electrical appliances started freezing up in the front of the store about 1 p.m., prompting her to go back to the circuit board and check the circuit breakers. When she did, “I heard them going pop-pop-pop,” she said.
That’s when Moretto looked into a nearby office and saw flames. The fire was too big to try to extinguish, she said, so she just called 911 and evacuated workers and customers.
Mike Schrage had come to Hardee’s for lunch after doing some Sunday morning shopping at Gander Mountain. He was enjoying a two-piece chicken dinner and reading the newspaper when he noticed the smell of smoke.
“Right about the time I thought, ‘That smells funny,’ they said, ‘Everybody out,’ ” he said.
Schrage, 34, of Cloquet, said customers and employees evacuated calmly. He and most of the other customers immediately moved their cars into other nearby parking lots so they wouldn’t be blocked in by fire trucks.
When the firetrucks arrived, what they found didn’t look good.
“When I got here, there was already yellow smoke billowing out of the attic,” Mattson said. “That means backdraft conditions are present.”
Firefighters arrived hoping to save the building, Mattson said, but soon saw that it wouldn’t be possible. “Once it went through the roof, we pretty much knew we were in trouble,” he said.
Upon arrival, firefighters entered Hardee’s and tried to put out the fire from inside. Soon after, the ceiling of the room where they were working collapsed.
The hole in the ceiling allowed the fire access to the space between the ceiling and the roof — an open corridor through which it could easily sweep, causing the rest of the ceiling to fall, along with heavy air conditioning units above the ceiling.
Because there was a risk of these units falling on firefighters, they were forced to switch from an offensive to a defensive approach and fight the fire from outside the building instead of inside.
The fire drew curious onlookers, about 200 around 1:30 p.m., who lined the ridges above the restaurant’s parking lot, watching as orange flames and black smoke poured out of the structure.
“It’s terrible,” said Karen Nyberg.
“We lost our lunch spot,” said her husband, Denny.
When the Duluth couple received a call from their daughter on their cellphone, they drove over to see the spectacle.
The Nybergs, both 58, retired two years ago and have eaten at Hardee’s two or three times each week, usually after playing golf.
The irony of an electrical fire in a restaurant that uses vats of hot grease provoked some amusement.
“I think everybody probably thought it was grease, in a place like this, you know,” said Karen Nyberg, laughing.
Meanwhile, the employees who’d been on duty gathered at a picnic table in the back parking lot to watch their livelihood go up in flames.
“It’s going to be a long night of cleanup,” Moretto joked to her employees.
Hardee’s crew member Aaron Ronning watched the blaze in dismay, wondering what would come next for him. Ronning, 21, was about to be promoted to crew trainer.
Moretto said Hardee’s would help the employees find work, either at other Hardee’s franchises in the area or at other fast food restaurants.
“We’ll take care of them,” she said. “There are other restaurants. It’s no problem there.”
Property records indicate that the restaurant was built in 1978 and expanded in 1992.
The franchise is owned by North Central Food Systems Inc., a company that owns most Hardee’s restaurants in the region, and a total of 97 across the Upper Midwest. Based in Irvine, Calif., North Central also has offices in the Midwest.
Mattson had no official theory about the fire’s cause Sunday afternoon but said the Fire Department would be investigating the case.
Damage from the fire was estimated at $1 million. About a month later, investigators labeled it a case of arson. “We ruled out ignition sources throughout the store, like mechanical or electrical equipment, until we came up with the conclusion that there was no cause for the fire, other than human,” Officer Jim Christensen, Duluth Police Department arson investigator, told the News Tribune. From what I can see in the archives, no one was ever arrested in the case.
The restaurant was rebuilt and reopened about a year later, in June 2002. A few years later, it was demolished to make way for a new Walgreens store at the corner of Trinity Road, Central Entrance and Miller Trunk Highway.
Other Northland Hardee’s locations have closed in the past decade – on Arrowhead Road and on Grand Avenue in Duluth, and in Two Harbors, among other places. A Hardee’s on London Road in Duluth closed back in 1996. As far as I know, the only Hardee’s that remains open in the area is on Belknap Street in Superior.
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